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With Erin Cook

The View from Indonesia

On 14 February 2024, in Jakarta’s old Chinatown district of Glodok, a chain-smoking gentleman with a nephew studying in Melbourne gave me his shorthand view of that day’s election. “In Indonesia,” he began, before an exhale of kretek fumes, “we always know who is going to win before the vote.”

The joke harks back to the Suharto era, when elections were held but with the president firmly controlling power. A quarter-century after Suharto was ousted by a people’s movement, the joke still lands with the man’s friends. The polling lead enjoyed by Prabowo Subianto and vice presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming Raka was so commanding that the result was a foregone conclusion even with booths still open. Canberra knew which way the wind was blowing – Anthony Albanese was the first world leader to call with his congratulations.

For the year leading up to the vote, however, nothing looked certain. Prabowo’s hat in the ring for the third time prompted pity and derision. The highly connected former general, who was once married to Suharto’s daughter, had lost twice to President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, the everyman from smalltown Java. But by 2020 Prabowo was Jokowi’s defence minister, and any lingering animosity between the duo had disappeared as the country looked to 2024.

Jokowi, fighting his own battles with PDI-P – the party led by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri that got him to the presidential palace – turned away from his party and towards Prabowo. Some quick maths showed that the presidency was winnable if Prabowo’s 2019 vote held and Jokowi mobilised even a portion of his supporters in his former rival’s favour.

Some funny business helped too. The questionable dissemination of welfare payments raised eyebrows, as well as Jokowi’s involvement in campaign events – technically legal, but not appreciated by many who saw the president as violating norms established by his predecessors since the return of democracy. The race was won, however, in the halls of the Constitutional Court. A minimum age requirement for candidates was overruled for 36-year-old Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Jokowi’s eldest son, on the grounds that his term as mayor of Solo demonstrated enough experience. It didn’t hurt that Jokowi’s brother-in-law Anwar Usman headed the court.

These tactics weren’t of much concern to the nearly 60 per cent of Indonesians who voted for the ticket, nor to an Australian government desperate to strengthen ties with Jakarta. Albanese, after his post-election call with Prabowo, said in a tweet that the pair chatted about Albanese’s “ambition for the future of Australia-Indonesia relations”.

Those ambitions were on show on 20 February after Australian Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell met with Prabowo and General Agus Subiyanto, the newly appointed head of the Indonesian military. The meeting was highly publicised in local media. The trio chatted “about the longevity of defence relationships between the two nations as well as opportunities for closer collaboration on a shared vision for an open, stable, and prosperous region”, according to Tempo.

By 23 February, Prabowo had met with his Australian counterpart, Richard Marles, in Jakarta, where a new defence cooperation agreement was hatched; it is set to be signed in the coming months. While details are slim, Prabowo called the agreement “very significant”. Marles raised the rhetoric – and expectations – during a post-meeting press conference, saying that “Australia and Indonesia have a shared destiny and a shared collective security and that is the basis on which we are moving forward with our own defence planning”. Indonesian media reported that the agreement is expected to be significant, perhaps trumping the landmark 1995 security deal signed between President Suharto and Prime Minister Paul Keating.

The post-election readjustment of the relationship should be much smoother than that experienced by Jokowi and Australia’s revolving door of prime ministers. In the opening years of the Jokowi era, damaging incidents in the relationship piled up, including the execution of Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, revelations of Australian spying on powerful Indonesians, and issues with live exports of cattle from Australia into Indonesia.

It’s hard to see any scandals that might loom on the horizon. Even mild tensions – particularly the response to the AUKUS security agreement in Jakarta and elsewhere in South-East Asia – are of little concern to Prabowo, a leader inclined to staying out of others’ business if it means they’ll stay out of his. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta was none too thrilled to learn that nuclear-powered submarines could soon be lurking in waters nearby, Prabowo is accepting. Having noted the official position of the Indonesian government, he told media that he understands the Australian urge to “protect their national interest”.

The Australian government is happy, and so are the tens of millions who support Prabowo. That still leaves, however, a sizeable minority who remember the Suharto era and Prabowo’s various roles in it. A world away from my new friends in Glodok, an old friend took her younger sister to a booth in leafy South Jakarta. “Will I get to vote next time?” her sister, just shy of the voting age of seventeen, asked her. In a show of the gallows humour in which Indonesians are world leaders, my friend responded: “I hope so.”

Erin Cook is a Southeast Asia-based journalist who covers the region through her daily Dari Mulut ke Mulut newsletter.


11am on Friday 8 March | The Australia Institute | FREE WEBINAR


Hugh White in conversation with Emma Shortis  Dead in the Water: The AUKUS Delusion


Join Professor Hugh White, Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University for an in-depth discussion with Dr Emma Shortis, Senior Researcher at The Australia Institute’s International & Security Affairs program. The talk will examine Hugh White’s essay in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, including whether Australia needs nuclear powered submarines and whether the AUKUS plan will deliver them. Free registration required. 




➀ ASEAN must anchor regional security through co-operation

“Like the rest of East Asia, ASEAN and Australia are trapped at the epicentre of what sometimes seems unstoppable geopolitical tensions, notably between the United States and China. With globalisation having diffused political and economic power, no single country can unilaterally secure its resilience and sovereignty.”

Peter Drysdale, Mari Pangestu, AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW


➁ The squawkus about AUKUS is getting louder

“The strategic arguments against Aukus are the weakest ones. The Australian government, like the Japanese and the Indians, is justifiably concerned by China’s military and territorial ambitions… Aukus is a classic effort to strengthen deterrence by increasing the risks to China of any potential aggression.”



➂ Might democracies’ failure to embrace ethnic communities help China recruit agents of influence?

“There is nothing wrong with being proud to be Chinese, but the CCP has ingeniously tied the Chinese identity to supporting modern China, including its ruling party and its political system by replacing China’s cultural heritage with a ‘new culture congenial to the state’. By controlling the information space, the CCP is dominating the definition of being Chinese.”



➃ ASIO versus the A-team

“The information revolution is creating a more complex ecosystem, in which information cannot be neatly categorised as public or secret. To break with business as usual, the National Intelligence Community should establish a dedicated open-source intelligence (OSINT) organisation.”  



 India’s GDP growth masks economic challenges

“The expected decline of the growth of agriculture and allied sectors in 2023–24 is a worrying sign for the economy. These sectors must grow consistently and at a significantly higher rate, given the depressed state of farm incomes.”

Biswajit Dhar, EAST ASIA FORUM




AFA20 – Dead in the Water The AUKUS Delusion

The latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines Australia’s momentous decision to form a security pact with the United States and the United Kingdom that includes an ambitious, expensive and risky plan to acquire nuclear-power submarines – a move that will have far-reaching military and strategic consequences.

Dead in the Water looks at whether the AUKUS deal will enhance or undermine Australia’s security as tensions between China and the US rise, at the impact on Australia’s ties with its regional neighbours, and at whether the submarines plan is likely to ever be achieved.

Subscribe here to read now.


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