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Australia-Indonesia ties under a Jokowi presidency



24 March 2014 17:33

If we're to believe the polls, newly announced candidate Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo is a sure bet to win Indonesia's presidential election in July. Until last Friday, when Jokowi announced his candidacy, the Jakarta governor had denied any presidential ambitions, so a clear picture of his policy platform as potential president has yet to emerge. But looking at his experience, his outlook, his party and the political figures that put him where he is today, perhaps we can guess at what a Jokowi presidency would mean for Australia-Indonesia relations.

A President Jokowi would inherit a difficult state of affairs. Canberra is still without an Indonesian Ambassador since Nadjib Riphat Kesoema was withdrawn over the spying row last November. Then there is the matter of Operation Sovereign Borders, which aims to fortify Australia's borders but pays little respect to Indonesia's. Australia has not taken heed of Indonesian requests for an end to the operation that has led to incursions into Indonesian territory.

The combined impact of these disagreements has resulted in a freeze in Australia-Indonesia relations, predicted to last until October when a new president is sworn in. Assuming that Jokowi will be the one taking the oath for his country, how will he handle the rocky relationship?

Jokowi's domestic appeal in Indonesia is that he doesn't put on the airs of the elite. At the same time, this grassroots image has promoted the view that Jokowi is not 'worldly' enough to hold his own in international forums, with rumours suggesting that he lacks fluency in English. In what was certainly a move to dispel these perceptions, Jokowi late last year led the first meeting of the governors and mayors of ASEAN capitals, and what's more, he addressed the delegates in English.

Jokowi shared his experiences as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta, roles in which he has shown a preference for using dialogue as a problem-solving technique rather than issuing top-down commands. If this approach is translated onto the international stage, it will make Indonesia an approachable neighbour for Australia.

His down-to-earth approach also means that any knocks to his public persona are suffered with a display of patience and humility, quite unlike the hostility provoked by criticism of many Indonesian leaders to date. Jokowi was involved in a domestic spying scandal earlier in the year when listening devices were reportedly planted in his home. He dismissed the alleged bugging without pressing charges, saying 'What can be (learned by) wiretapping me?…I only talk about light issues with my wife at home, like food and (other) ordinary things.'

This is not to say his reaction would be the same if the intrusion came from another country. Jokowi's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), is known for its nationalist leaning, based as it is on the memory of Indonesia's struggle for independence from foreign powers. Sukarno, the nation's first president and father of PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri, took a strong stance against alignment with foreign powers, especially those from the West.

Jokowi is unlikely to take such an extreme position, probably preferring incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's approach of 'a million friends and zero enemies'. But he is likely to be defensive about foreign interference in national affairs, especially with Megawati at his back. This suggests Australia would not get a free pass on the spying scandal or territorial incursions under a Jokowi presidency, but it would probably not be frozen out of discussion either.

Economically, the PDI-P's platform for the 2014 elections is to decrease foreign debt and to limit and regulate foreign investment in order to protect national interests. But since the party announced Jokowi as its candidate last Friday, foreign investment has poured into the nation's stock market on hopes that the expected president will cut through corruption and red tape to accelerate activity in infrastructure, construction, and health care. We have yet to see how Jokowi, a former businessman, will balance his sympathy for business interests with the protectionist push of his party.

In terms of people-to-people links and deeper cultural understanding between Indonesia and Australia, Jokowi's international reputation will likely boost Indonesia's standing in the eyes of Australians. Last year's Lowy Institute poll showed that only 33% of Australians saw Indonesia as a democracy. With Jokowi commonly described in the international press as 'Indonesia's Obama', his predicted election as president will change Australian perceptions of its neighbour, laying the groundwork for a relationship based on mutual respect.

There's still a chance that the polls will change between now and July, with a different president taking Yudhoyono's place in October. But if Jokowi proves the pollsters right, Australia will need to be well prepared to make a fresh start together with a new kind of leader for Indonesia.

Photo by Flickr user Josh Estey/DFAT

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