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What does a Prabowo Subianto presidency mean for Australia's relationship with Indonesia?

ABC News - February 21, 2024

Will Jackson – Indonesia's foreign policy is expected to remain largely unchanged once Prabowo Subianto takes the reins later this year, meaning business as usual for the country's relationship with Australia.

But experts warn the presumptive new president's personality and questionable past could cause some headaches for Canberra.

Mr Subianto claimed victory on Wednesday after a preliminary "quick count" showed he had garnered about 58 per cent of the vote in the national election.

During the campaign, the 72-year-old had positioned himself as the natural successor to Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, promising to continue with the popular leader's policies.

He even took on Mr Widodo's son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his vice-presidential running mate.

His campaign worked hard to win the youth vote, with a focus on social media, and to rebrand him as a "cuddly grandpa". He demonstrated his signature dance at every opportunity.

However, the former general has a chequered human rights record that for a time saw him barred from entering Australia and could in the future become a sore point in the diplomatic relationship.

Promising continuity

Justin Hastings, a professor of International Relations and Comparative Politics at the University of Sydney, said Mr Subianto's inclusion of substantial elements of the Jokowi administration into his team showed he was "at least promising continuity".

"Given that he's also currently the defence minister, what Indonesia is doing in the defence space is likely what it would continue doing once Prabowo becomes president," he said.

"What that means for Australia is that we see a president who is generally going to follow the contours of existing Indonesian foreign policy, especially non-alignment.

"He's going to be very specifically a pro-Indonesia president – which is not to say he's necessarily pro- or anti-US, Australia or China – but I think we'll see a continuation of what we saw before, of generally good relationships [with all three]."

He said the prospects of Australia and Indonesia achieving an upgraded defence agreement were positive under Mr Subianto, who had also been "less overtly critical of AUKUS" than some other South-East Asian leaders.

"And we certainly have a president who I think has in the past expressed some admiration for China's system, but he's certainly not pro-China in the sense that he's going to make concessions to China," he said.

"While Prabowo has been defence minister, we've seen Indonesia moving to pretty rapidly beef up its defence posture in the Natuna Islands, partially because they're worried that China will make a claim on them."

'Erratic and emotive tendencies'

Vedi Hadiz, director of the University of Melbourne's Asia Institute, said Mr Subianto was "an extremely erratic personality and extremely unpredictable" while also being sensitive to personal criticism.

Professor Hadiz cited as an example Mr Subianto becoming visibly upset during the first presidential debate when he was questioned about his ethics by fellow candidate Anies Baswedan.

"Subsequently at a campaign event he used a Javanese pejorative expression to show disdain for such questions," he said.

"That caused a stir because it was seen as disrespectful towards an opponent and raised questions about his emotive nature."

Professor Hadiz said these "erratic and emotive tendencies" could exacerbate any issues that cropped up in the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

"By definition, it means that he's going to be a bit difficult to handle," he said.

While serving as a military general, Mr Subianto faced allegations (which he has repeatedly rejected) of human rights violations in East Timor.

He has also been dogged by suspicions about the disappearance of 22 activists while he was commander of the special forces under president Suharto in the 1990s.

As recently as 2019, after losing the last election to Mr Widodo, he urged his supporters out onto the streets with six people killed in the subsequent riots.

Professor Hadiz said Mr Subianto would likely react badly to criticism from the Australian public over his "poor human rights record".

Even more worrying was the potential fallout of any new infringements on human rights by Mr Subianto's government.

"Because, I don't think he has much regard for human rights and the Australian government will be under pressure from the public to say something about that," he said.

"You also have to keep in mind that under Jokowi in the last few years there has already been a tightening of the space in the Human Rights area through the passage of several laws, and it is likely that that trend will be taken advantage of by Prabowo, if not pushed further."

Professor Hadiz advised Australia's diplomats to use flattery on Mr Subianto. "He's very vain," he said. "So propping him up, boosting his ego will probably work wonders with him."

Not the 'easiest' diplomatically

Nathan Franklin, a lecturer in Indonesian Studies at Charles Darwin University, said Mr Subianto was smart, pragmatic, ultra-nationalist and pro-business.

"Prabowo will definitely be someone that will, on certain issues, be tricky to deal with," he said.

"You know, he's playing a bit of a double game with China. He's still very anti-communist – the Communist Party in Indonesia is still banned – but he knows that Chinese money is important."

And he said the "human rights element" would be an ongoing issue Australia would have to deal with. "Diplomatically, politically, it will probably keep raising its head," he said.

Dr Franklin said Mr Subianto would continue to face heat over his past human rights record, despite his denials.

"He has obviously had training or been advised to just say: 'This has been investigated, and I wasn't involved' or 'my involvement was not to the extent that people are saying'," he said.

Looking ahead, he expected Mr Subianto to crack down on some elements of freedom, including the media, the independence of the corruption eradication commission and the judiciary, and stymie any expansion of rights for LGBTQ+ people and minority groups.

"He understands the importance of the major Islamic groups, and keeping them happy," he said. "And the nationalistic rhetoric will come out."

Dr Franklin said there were also questions about how Timor Leste would react to Mr Subianto's presidency, and how he would deal with the independence movement in Papua.

"He's not bad for Australia but it would have been easier diplomatically if one of the other candidates was elected," he said.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-02-17/what-does-prabowo-subianto-presidency-australia-indonesia/10347571