30 October 2019
For many years, former Indonesian general Prabowo Subianto was effectively barred from entering Australia. This was due to his suspected role in mass disappearances, torture, rapes and killings in Jakarta, Timor-Leste and West Papua from the 1970s to the 1990s. In 1998, after being discharged from the military for alleged kidnappings, he entered politics and built a support base by courting hard-line Islamists and adopting defiantly nationalist rhetoric.
But Prabowo is now almost certain to visit Australia. Last week, he was appointed defence minister by his main political rival, Joko Widodo, who twice defeated him in presidential elections. It was a disappointing move by Joko, especially since Prabowo’s refusal to accept the election results earlier this year led to riots in Jakarta that left at least eight people dead.
For Australia, which has struggled to establish close relations with its northern neighbour, the best prospect for improving this is an open, stable government in Jakarta that keeps intolerance, nationalism and xenophobia in check. Sadly, Joko’s new cabinet, confirmed last week, suggests that this is not the direction in which he is heading in his second and final term.
Joko’s new 38-member cabinet has only five women and no ethnic Chinese-Indonesians. It includes a new attorney-general, Sanitar Burhanuddin, a former prosecutor who immediately promised to resume executions. Indonesia has not conducted an execution since 2016 and was believed to be moving away from capital punishment, the use of which has marred ties with Australia and others. Joko also selected Nadiem Makarim, the 35-year-old co-founder of Gojek, a US$10 billion rideshare firm, to be education minister – a post for which Nadiem, like several other appointees, seems to have minimal experience.
By choosing Prabowo and other political rivals, Joko now has a coalition that stretches across six parties. This may help him to pass legislation and to secure his investment plans, but it also means the country no longer has an effective opposition.
The new cabinet demonstrates two of Joko’s main leadership qualities. First, he is not the progressive reformer whom moderates – and much of the international community – had hoped for when he was elected in 2014. He is wary of upsetting hard-line Islamists, whose voice and clout have been growing. And he likes to keep his potential enemies close.
Second, Joko is primarily focused on his large-scale infrastructure development plans. He sees this, rather than the strengthening of democratic institutions, as the key to Indonesia’s future. In his second term, he is unashamedly promoting his proposed road, rail, telecommunications and capital-relocation projects, while allowing vested political interests to determine policy in other areas, such as justice, religion and defence. When announcing the appointment of Prabowo, for instance, he said: “I believe I don’t have to tell him about his job – he knows more than I do.”
But Joko’s approach is unlikely to keep the usual business and political players – who are now inside the tent – from interfering with his building program. And it will only exacerbate Indonesia’s slide away from democracy. In recent months, Joko has done little to block troubling new laws, including a move to restrict the independence and powers of the anti-corruption commission, and a draconian criminal code that contains a ban on extramarital sex. There is growing speculation that the main parties will now try to end direct presidential elections, which would further entrench the authority of the ruling elite.
Such a backward shift will not unravel Indonesia’s already thin relationship with Australia. The two countries have strong ties in areas such as security and counterterrorism cooperation, but appallingly weak economic and trade links. Australian tourists rarely visit Indonesia beyond Bali, and its businesses rarely invest there. Joko’s second term is unlikely to change any of this, or to improve Australian perceptions of its diverse, populous neighbour.
Within the next five years, Prabowo – who once claimed Indonesia would benefit from a “benign authoritarian regime”– will inevitably be welcomed here by his Australian counterpart. And his promotion last week increases the chances that, after Joko retires in 2024, he may one day visit as president.