Published daily by the Lowy Institute

A Prabowo presidency will be good for Australian interests

Even though it might not be so for Indonesia’s democracy.

Prabowo Subianto, as Indonesian defence minister, in talks with his Australian counterpart Richard Marles (Kym Smith/Defence Department)
Prabowo Subianto, as Indonesian defence minister, in talks with his Australian counterpart Richard Marles (Kym Smith/Defence Department)

The world’s largest single-day elections, held in February 2024, granted Prabowo Subianto his long-held dream of becoming Indonesian president. Having served as Indonesian defence minister since 2019 under one-time opponent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, and as the son-in-law of late dictator Suharto, Prabowo is no stranger to elite politics. His father served as a minister under Indonesia’s first president Sukarno as well as Suharto.

Prabowo’s controversial record as a special forces commander is well documented. His rebrand as a cuddly grandpa figure during the 2024 election campaign may not last long. Much has been made of his famous temper.

Fears that Prabowo will set Indonesia’s democracy backwards are not unfounded. He has long advocated a return to the 1945 Constitution, which would strip Indonesian citizens of the right to directly elect their presidents. During the 2024 election campaign, Prabowo repeatedly goaded journalists. At one event he warned media workers: “Be careful, we take note of everything you do.”

His track record in the military and ultranationalist tub thumping understandably makes minorities nervous, particularly ethnic Chinese Indonesians and Papuans. Relations with Timor-Leste under his presidency may not flourish.

However, Prabowo’s interest in foreign relations and promoting himself abroad as a respectable statesman is longstanding.

Successive Australian governments have shown comfort dealing with strongman leaders, so long as they are not strategic rivals.

In stark contrast with Jokowi, Prabowo is comfortable and eloquent speaking English, whether being interviewed on television by foreign media networks or speaking in high-level diplomatic settings, as he did a fortnight ago at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and last week at an emergency forum on humanitarian aid for Gaza hosted by Jordan.

Where Jokowi often leaned on pop-culture references, once likening the bilateral relationship with Australia to assembled strength of Marvel superhero characters in a speech to the Australian parliament, Prabowo speaks with sophistication on issues of international import.

When I reported on the 2019 presidential elections, Prabowo’s Gerindra Party had a dedicated media officer for foreign journalists – top of her class at Boston University, I was told – who provided near-daily updates in English and was highly responsive to inquiries. Senior staffers from the PDIP meanwhile (then Jokowi’s party and the most electorally successful party in recent decades) did not even respond to my media requests sent in Bahasa Indonesia.

As defence minister, Prabowo visited China regularly. His first foreign visit as president-elect was to Beijing where he met President Xi Jinping, which raised some eyebrows in Western capitals. Yet on the same trip, Prabowo also visited Japan and Malaysia. Given China and Japan are top trade partners and investors in Indonesia, the choice of destinations made sense. Prabowo pledged to strengthen security ties with both.

Prabowo is nothing if not a fierce patriot. It is almost impossible to imagine he will stray from Indonesia’s bebas aktif or “independent and active” diplomatic doctrine, which has dominated since the phrase was first uttered by vice president Mohammad Hatta in 1948. In a Cold War context, that meant the freedom to build relationships with both the Soviet bloc and US-led Western powers. It means much the same today, with China in place of the USSR.

“It’s our tradition, it’s our history that we do not want to belong to any blocs, especially military alliances. Our guiding philosophy is to be friends with all countries,” Prabowo said in an interview with Al Jazeera last month. Regarding tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea, he said: “By diplomacy, by negotiations – what I call the Asian way – we have defused a lot of situations.”

At the same time, Indonesia is pushing to join the OECD. Prabowo plans to modernise the Indonesian military with mostly Western arms and equipment.

Writing of Suharto’s “unsung legacy” upon the late dictator’s death in 2008, former Labor prime minister Paul Keating observed that had Suharto’s New Order not “displaced” Sukarno and the Indonesian communist party, “communist-dominated Indonesia would have destabilised Australia and all of Southeast Asia”.

“Indonesia has been at the fulcrum of our strategic stability,” Keating declared. Political leaders today are similarly pragmatic.

Successive Australian governments have shown comfort dealing with strongman leaders, so long as they are not strategic rivals. Think, for example, of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese declaring Narendra Modi “the boss”, despite the Indian prime minister’s overt hostility to religious minorities, political opponents and the press. Or Australia’s warm relations with the deeply repressive government of Vietnam.

Prabowo’s time in the presidential palace is widely expected to be bad for the health of Indonesian democracy. But in an era of heightened geopolitical tension in the Asia Pacific, where Australia desires stability and diversified trade relations, the next five years will likely prove a boon for ties between Canberra and Jakarta.

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