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Ganjar Interview: Indonesia’s next President will never dye, but wants closer ties with Australia

by Duncan Graham | Jul 30, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Ganjar Pranowo, the civilian administrator, corruption fighter, fitness freak and sometime porn connoisseur, has some high ideals. Duncan Graham went for a walk with the leading candidate for President of Indonesia.

He wants more young Indonesians to better understand Australia – and vice-versa.

But whatever Ganjar Pranowo thinks or enacts, if he becomes the leader of the world’s third-largest democracy and biggest Muslim-majority nation after the 2024 February 14 election, will change nothing if Australia doesn’t agree.

That’s because Canberra’s visa policy still discriminates against Indonesians, despite many pleadings, including from the present President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo.

Ganjar Pronowo

Ganjar Pronowo

Jokowi raised the issue directly to PM Anthony Albanese at their July meeting in Sydney. A concession was made – though only for business. Individual visitors still face a visa fee of $190 while Malaysians pay $20. Unsurprisingly, Indonesians think this is grossly unfair as they have visa-free access to all nine ASEAN neighbours.

Before he can campaign to get more of his citizens into Australia to learn about our lifestyle and culture, the present Governor of Central Java – whose second five-year term ends this September – needs to beat a seasoned educator, and a disgraced former general, in the race to the Jakarta Palace.

In a short roadside interview with no media minders or reporters from partisan TV stations present, Ganjar, 54, told MWM that he’d visited Australia a ‘couple of times’.

He spoke while flexing for a five km daybreak dashabout with his wife Siti Atiqori Suryani, 51 (a marathon runner), and a dozen business and political pavement-pounders, men and women.

He rejected suggestions that Indonesia and its leaders just mouth polite statements about their big neighbour to mask indifference, even distrust.

Australia is very important to Indonesia, very important. I want our young people to go to Australia and invite your students to come here and study, to know more.

“I support greater sister city arrangements, like the one we have here in Semarang (the capital of the Central Java province) and Brisbane. We want more business like the proposed electric vehicle battery deals that Jokowi has been discussing with your prime minister.”

However, some academics claim Ganjar’s real foreign affairs interests are with Beijing where he’s been a frequent visitor: ‘With these connections, the likelihood that Indonesia’s foreign policy remains wedded to the current approach, or perhaps becomes even closer to China, is strong.’

Ganjar (forename use is Indonesian style and doesn’t imply intimacy) is personable and speaks reasonable English. He invites locals he meets to ask questions, and did the same with this correspondent, but was guarded throughout.

Requests for a sit-down interview were knocked back firmly – “no time, impossible”, so no chance to ask about his views on democracy, which many believe is declining under Jokowi.

Ganjar’s articulate and more fluent wife Siti was unworried about expanding on her husband’s responses.

Unlike Jokowi’s wife Iriana, who is rarely heard, Siti wears a jilbab (headscarf) supposedly a sign of piety, which some assume means being unworldly. That would be a mistake.

When Ganjar was flummoxed by being asked to detail how he’ll get more youngsters heading Down Under, Siti ran to tell of a deal between the local Diponegoro University and Griffith Uni on the Gold Coast.

The campuses will together research forced labour and climate change, and their impact on women and children.

Jokowi and Ganjar are in the ruling mildly-left populist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle which has a majority (128 of 575) seats in the Legislative Assembly. Their boss is the Republic’s de-facto queen, Megawati, daughter of founding president Soekarno.

The race is on – the line-up to replace Joko Widodo as Indonesia’s next president is revealed

Nominations won’t close till 25 November, but three heavyweights have been confirmed. The presidency is limited to two five-year terms, so Jokowi can’t stand again.

Ganjar’s rivals are disgraced former general and Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto who wants to get the military more involved in civilian affairs, and academic Anies Baswedan, a previous Education Minister.

Polls put Ganjar first one week, then Prabowo the next; Anies is usually behind. They are unreliable because samples are small and city-based.

As in the US, the people directly elect the president. The VP candidates have yet to be announced, but this post usually goes to someone to appease the religious rather than be politically active.

Ganjar and Siti – the daughter and grand-daughter of Islamic scholars – have both been on the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) so should avoid the charge that he’s not a ‘real’ Muslim.

That slur is often slung at Jokowi who seems more comfortable with ancient Javanese beliefs than the 13th-century Middle East import.

In Indonesian affairs there’s no separation of faith and politics, Candidates’ personalities, families and quirks carry more clout than policy.

Unlike most middle-aged portly politicians, the slim Ganjar doesn’t dye his hair. So his grey hair has become his trade mark, enhanced by his dedication to fitness, even cycling till he broke his arm in a tumble last year.

Now he walks, seemingly minus bodyguards though well protected by his equally trim sidekicks, men and women. They end their exercise in a restaurant and then take public transport back to their big black SUVs.

It’s all part of the blusukan (market walkabout) campaign tactic pioneered by Jokowi as a break from formality, and which delighted Malcolm Turnbull on a Jakarta visit as PM in 2015.

Such displays of commonality are now rare since an Islamic radical couple stabbed and wounded Security Minister Wiranto at a public event. But Ganjar persists.

He’s also deft at handling controversy. In a 2019 podcast, he admitted to watching porn, an extraordinary comment in a morally uptight nation where the Ministry of Communications bans sex across all media forms – even sites like Tumblr and Vimeo.

He told an interviewer: “If I watch porn, what is wrong with that? I like it. I am an adult. I have a wife.” Headlines reported “porn OK for married men” but no response from wives. Ganjar played the story for laughs, suggesting it was a publicity stunt to reach young men.

If so it could have gone down the toilet in a culture where most public figures hungry for fame denounce anything suggesting immorality. That he survived suggests he understands prudes are often hypocrites and has a blacklist.

Ganjar has floundered, most seriously, by backing bans against the Israeli team in the under-20 soccer World Cup, which moved to the Argentine, costing Indonesia millions in lost revenue.

Archipela-no-go: global soccer, then Coldplay, fall foul of rising homophobia, anti-Israel sentiment in Indonesia

It’s been widely reported that Ganjar was ordered to object against the wishes of Jokowi by Megawati seeking to reinforce her late father’s support for Palestine and to placate the Muslim lobby. It certainly inflamed the nation’s footy fans – and that’s just about everyone.

Like Jokowi, Ganjar doesn’t come from an elite Javanese family, big business or the military that run Indonesia, but his upbringing was a few notches above the riverside slum where the present president was raised.

Ganjar is the fifth of six kids fathered by a village cop who had various postings, so the family had status. He studied law at Gadjah Mada University and worked for oil and gas companies before entering national politics and then elected Governor on an anti-corruption platform.

The sales pitch for his candidacy is that he’s Jokowi update and he’ll maintain present development policies which have lifted the incumbent to a 73 percent approval rating.

When asked if that continuity includes shifting the national capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan he said “of course” which is a standard Javanese response to journos’ questions, and a useful ploy to avoid scrutiny.

The $50 billion project needs overseas investors who are holding out till they see who’ll be the next president. Australian money has so far shown little interest.

A Tale of Two Cities – Jakarta is sinking, but funding for Indonesia’s new capital has yet to surface

Ganjar was surprised when told of the Australian rite for incoming leaders to proclaim the importance of Indonesia.

Tony Abbott’s 2013 speech asserting “more Jakarta, less Geneva” has become a classic, but didn’t mean anything and didn’t last.

The then president was former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a staunch Australophile until he learned Canberra’s clumsy spooks were tapping his phone and that of his wife Kristiani Herawati.

The outrage has dissipated, but the insult exposed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden hasn’t been forgotten. Abbott refused to apologise. There are other sores in the relationship, Australia’s role in the East Timor independence referendum, the Bali bombs, drug runner executions …

More will follow. That’s been the pattern. Lowy Institute surveys have shown the ignorance and distrust, Ganjar’s plea for closer ties is the right call, but will anything happen?

Unpacking the president’s mien: just how successful was Jokowi’s visit to Australia?

Duncan Graham has a Walkley Award, two Human Rights Commission awards and other prizes for his radio, TV and print journalism in Australia. He now lives in Indonesia.

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