Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Change of leadership to test neighbourly bond.

Despite the live-cattle debacle and the ongoing asylum seeker issues, bi-lateral relations between Australia-Indonesia are looking very healthy at present.
The current warm and co-operative relationship between Indonesia and Australia is likely to be tested however, over the next 12 months as both countries face national elections that will see a new Indonesian president installed and, if the latest polls are correct, Tony Abbott finally achieving his dream of becoming Australia’s next prime minister.
The opposition leader’s 'dream' may however, be short-lived when amongst his immediate tasks will be a visit to Indonesia to inform them that his new government intends to implement their commitment to turn around asylum seeker boats and dump the hapless passengers back on our northern neighbour’s beaches.

This task won’t be easy, but if that seems daunting there are other challenges would await our new PM that may re-define the bi-lateral relationship for years to come.

When the PM and his foreign minister-most likely Julie Bishop-arrive at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, probably in December 2013 or early 2014, they will be met by a president whose party has been ravaged by corruption scandals, and whose personal popularity is at an all time low. Sound familiar? They will also meet with a president who will be in 'caretaker' mode with the Indonesian national elections (then) only a few months away.
Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono - or SBY as he is known in Indonesia - has held a deep affection for Australia, but with his compulsory retirement in 2014, Australia faces a completely new ball-game; in politics, business and regional relations.

It is hard to guess exactly how this current president will react to a 'turn back the boats' policy given the ambivalence about asylum seeker issues by most Indonesians, but SBY will be keen not to agree to anything that may even further damage his already badly wounded party, and his own domestic reputation as a weak and ‘let’s do nothing’ leader.

Abbott knows only too well that the real challenge for his government will occur after the Indonesian elections when a new president is installed, and talk on the streets of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta suggests the charming but lethal Prabowo Subianto is a serious contender to lead Indonesia as from next year.

The former general and commander of the notorious Kopassus, that lead the attacks on the East Timorese independence movement in the early nineties, is currently on the banned entry list in the USA; a looming diplomatic challenge for the Obama government – and Australia - should Prabowo be elected in 2014

Probowo's style is similar to Suharto and is seen as very different to the perceived weakness of SBY by many 'village' people.

Prabowo would therefore, hardly take Australia's new 'boat' policy lightly and with thousands of asylum seekers waiting for any chance to head down to Australia, a belligerent response from a new Indonesian president could make the current crisis with boat people look rather benign.

Other candidates with a chance at the Indonesian presidency include Aburizal Bakrie, the  powerful billionaire whose company was responsible for a massive mud-flow in East Java several years ago that displaced thousands of people. Bakrie is despised by many Indonesians, and also disliked by elements within his own party, but he cannot be disregarded as a real possibility for president.

One bright-light for Australia however, lies in the recently elected governor of Jakarta; Joko Widodo. 'Jokowi' as he is affectionately known is a moderate with an underlying determination to get things done. He is highly respected by the 'man on the street' and is honest. Despite being relatively inexperienced in international affairs, 'Jokowi'
could be a good president – although more likely a vice-president - and one that Australia could work well with. He needs the support of a party with the numbers in the national parliament and this could possibly come from the PDI-P, headed by the former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

But irrespective of who ends up as Indonesia’s president in 2014, Australia must accept that the elections will usher in a new and possibly a less certain era in our bi-lateral relations. With Australia having to ‘tip-toe’ along the delicate regional path between economic loyalties to China and strategic loyalties to the USA, it will be critical to have a supportive and friendly Indonesia treading the same path.

A strong economy, a new found sense of being a respected world and regional player, a growing suspicion about Australia’s position on West Papua, and in business concerns about the IA-CEPA Free Trade Agreement will all be factors that will provide both Abbott and Bishop with much to consider in their desire to develop a close relationship with a far more confident, stronger and nationalistic Indonesia.

As we focus on the domestic events leading-up to our own federal elections in September, the evolving political environment in Indonesia will probably be hardly noticed by many Australians.

So as we board our next holiday flight to Bali, we should remember that the impact on all Australians of an emerging powerhouse with over 240 million people and a new, and possibly less accommodating president (to Australia) could challenge our perceptions of, and relations with, our near neighbour significantly.

Just ask Tony after his first visit.

Ross B. Taylor is the chairman of the WA-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)

April 2013

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