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History's hand on Prabowo's shoulder

Australian Financial Review - February 18, 2024

James Curran – As Prabowo Subianto basks in the glow of a thumping election win in Indonesia last week, the evolution of his worldview, especially its rich vein of nationalism, is critical to understanding the kind of president he may become.

His is a family and intellectual pedigree whose arc reaches back to the Indonesian war of independence against the Dutch, continues through the post-war era and beyond Suharto, and now culminates in his becoming Indonesia's president in waiting.

Since independence in 1947, Indonesia has had four distinct types of government: a federal Western-style democracy; "guided" democracy under Sukarno; the New Order military dictatorship; and since Suharto's resignation in 1998, a liberal-tending form of democracy.

Prabowo's family background is steeped in this history. He comes marinated in Indonesian elite politics. His uncle, after whom Prabowo is named, was killed in battle by the Japanese in the latter stages of World War II. His grandfather played an important role in the movement towards independence, later founding Indonesia's first bank and leading its Supreme Advisory Council. Prabowo's father Sumitro, a famous economist, served as Suharto's minister for the economy and minister for research and technology.

Prabowo has relentlessly pursued power – he stood unsuccessfully both for the vice presidency in 2009 and then presidency in 2014 and 2019. That pursuit, coupled with his background, indicates this is unlikely to be a leader to sit on his hands. Indeed, for all the talk that his vice president, Jokowi's son Gibran, represents continuity, Prabowo may end up running rings around him.

Much commentary has focused on the reversion to older style dynastic politics in Indonesia, but that is also characteristic of Malaysian, Thai and Philippine politics. And as the East Asia Forum argued last week, "leaving aside the genuine concerns about the quality of democracy in Indonesia, there's no denying that there's still a tremendous quantity to it", pointing out that close to 205 million voters, half under 40, went to the polls to choose a president, making it the "biggest single-day election in the world".

Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once described Prabowo as "quick but inappropriate in his outspokenness".

Some have already seen that trait in Prabowo's comment during a major foreign policy address late last year in which he remarked that, given the shift in global politics, Indonesia "doesn't need Europe anymore". The comments were driven by his frustration that whereas Jakarta opens its doors to European cars such as Mercedes and Volkswagen, the EU maintains protective barriers on Indonesian palm oil, tea, coffee and cocoa.

Keeping to the middle path

Nevertheless, a president Prabowo is likely to hew closely to Joko Widodo's middle path between the US and China. The president-elect describes both as "good friends". In essence, his Indonesia will remain determinedly non-aligned.

That much has already been confirmed by his closest adviser: his brother. During a pre-election briefing convened in Washington by the US-Indonesian Society last month, Hashim Djojohadikusumo confirmed this basic foreign policy stance. Under Prabowo's leadership, he affirmed, "we will continue Indonesia's traditional role of non-alignment which is basically a euphemism for neutrality". And in terms of US-China tensions, he added: "We want to be neutral in this great competition".

How Prabowo defines Indonesia's role in an evolving and elusive debate over a new era of multipolarity will be key.

That's not to say that if either the US or China applies pressure publicly on Indonesia, Prabawo's strong sense of nationalism won't be pricked. He will most certainly respond. The more cynical might say that the US/China competition is too strident for either Washington or Beijing to care.

That's probably why many commentators are hedging their bets on what kind of predictability, or otherwise, Prabowo will bring to the job. And it is why his human rights record will probably remain a stone in the shoe when it comes to assessments of his leadership and character – recall that Prabowo was barred from entering the United States for two decades over accusations of human rights abuses in East Timor.

Relations with Australia

For much of the Cold War, Indonesia was a source of fear and anxiety in the Australian strategic imagination. Consider how that has changed.

From the mid-1970s there was a consensus at the heart of the political community which withstood the public backlash over successive governments' policy not to make the entire relationship with Jakarta captive to the East Timor question. Canberra knew that Indonesia was the key to Australia's long-term acceptance in the region.

The fear of Indonesia disappeared with the signing by Paul Keating and President Suharto of an agreement for maintaining security in 1995. It meant that no longer was Indonesia seen in the Australian system, particularly by Defence, as a source of expansionism and caprice. Indonesia had its southern flank protected; Australia gained a northern bulwark against the unpredictability of an evolving regional environment.

Much mutual incomprehension and ignorance continue on both sides of the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

As businessman Nicholas Moore's report into South-East Asia found, Australia is unable to leverage much influence in Indonesia because the fulcrum of its investment is too small. There remains a lack of substantial economic and community engagement in both countries beyond holidays in Bali.

It will be up to Prabowo and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to not only maintain the momentum of recent years but build solidly on it. It is a relationship, as ever, requiring careful and adroit management.

[James Curran is the Financial Review's International Editor and professor of modern history at Sydney University.]

Source: https://www.afr.com/policy/foreign-affairs/history-s-hand-on-prabowo-s-shoulder-20240218-p5f5t