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Indonesia to elect a new president – but a queen will decide the leading candidate

by Duncan Graham | Jan 29, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Megawati Soekarnoputri will soon announce the leading candidate for the next president of Indonesia. Who is in contention and what are the implications for Australia? Duncan Graham reports.

Megawati Soekarnoputri will soon announce the leading candidate for the next president of Indonesia. As the head of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), it is her prerogative to choose and the party will accede to her wishes. The world’s third largest democracy has it’s limits.

Megawati is the daughter of Indonesia’s first President Soekarno and a former president herself. The DPI-P recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and many expected the candidate to be announced at the January 10 ‘Golden Jubilee’ bash. But Megawati refrained from doing so telling celebrants: “People are waiting for (the candidate’s name) … but it’s my business.”

Soekarno, still revered as the father of modern Indonesia, named his kids after elements of the weather with ‘mega’ meaning ‘cloud goddess’ in Sanskrit. He probably did not imagine the megalomaniac that many observers saw in his eldest daughter.

Like a queen, Megawati hand-picked the then Jakarta Governor Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo nine years ago and then again for the 2019 election. Jokowi won both times, beating authoritarian former general Prabowo Subianto. But instead of ignoring his rival, Widodo made him Defence Minister, giving him a platform for another shot at the top job. Prabowo has announced that he will run again in 2024, but the mild mannered and popular Jokowi, with his 50 million Instagram followers, is constitutionally barred from running again.

With the official allocation of parties’ positions complete and VOTE ME banners appearing, Indonesian electors are tucking their sarongs ready for a robust 12-month campaign climaxing early next year.

The deadly election

The last one in 2019 was a killer, literally.  Around 500 officials and helpers among the seven million recruits died of exhaustion during the world’s biggest one-day election.

The show then turned American with riots in major towns causing six deaths and 200 wounded. The violence was launched by supporters of Prabowo whose wacky speeches about a ‘Ghost Fleet’ invasion make Donald Trump sound balanced. A Prabowo victory would be bad news for Australia. His history of human rights abuses would be bad for Indonesia.

The president is elected by direct vote. No compulsion; last time the turnout was 81 per cent of the 187 million registered voters; minimum age 17.

Indonesia has a bicameral parliament. The major authority is the 575-member People’s Representative Council (DPR) elected through proportional representation. The PDI-P holds 128 seats but has put other parties under its brolly to gain control.

Much will bewilder outsiders as 17 parties claim they’re driven by care for the nation’s poor. All assert piety to snare the Muslim vote. There’s no sharp left-right divide as in the US and Australia. Some researchers claim parties merge “to share the spoils of office, rather than by ideological or policy differentiation”.

Indonesia says it’s a secular democracy. That doesn’t mean it’s authentic. The US Government-funded Freedom House scores it a ‘partly free’ 59. Finland hits high with 100. Australia ranks 95.

Indonesia’s place may slip further, undermined by new laws curbing freedom of speech. Bad-mouth the president and ministers at your peril, for there is no defence of truth.

The Bali Bonk Ban that wasn’t – media gets it wrong. Again.

Indonesia started dancing with democracy in 1945 when the anti-West Soekarno proclaimed independence from Dutch rule. The new Republic was a ‘liberal democracy’. By 1959 the President, who had nine known wives and at least a dozen offspring, decided he knew best and squabbling legislators needed a firm hand.

Repression and cronyism

So it was that ‘Guided Democracy’ ran till the 1965 coup launched the ‘Orde Baru’ (New Order) US-backed despotic rule of General Soeharto, who went on to become one of the world’s most infamous kleptocrats..

When forced out by student protests in 1998, The Guardian reported that Soeharto, “regarded as a bulwark against communism in Asia, stole as much as $35bn from his impoverished country during his three decades in power”.

This wealth was built on “ruthless repression, cronyism and manipulation of the world’s rival superpowers”. Much remains embedded in the culture. Last year, Transparency International measured Indonesian corruption at 96/180.

A survey by the Indonesian think-tank CSIS showed voters’ contempt starts with the cops, then cascades to the legislature, judiciary, political parties and public officials. To be fair, under Jokowi corruption – at least in the lower levels of government – has shown signs of improvement.

Soeharto’s Golkar Party won all elections till 1999, perhaps because public servants were compelled to support. In 2014 the presidency was captured by Widodo, a humble Mr Everyman with no links to the army or the elite.

He was reluctantly endorsed by the nation’s slightly left, totally nationalist PDI-P. Megawati should be seeking the most meritorious replacement for Widodo. But her ambition is to keep the family in power by putting her daughter Puan Maharani, 49 on the palace stage. According to the Jakarta Post, that could spell the end of PDI-P’s hold on power as Puan is not held in high regard.

A Valentine’s Day election

The election will be on Valentine’s Day next year. That’s not an omen for love twixt the public and imperious Puan. No-one dare tell Mamma Mega, and fifth president (2001-04), that the times are changing. A third of the 274 million population was born this century and is as likely as not to assume ‘Orde Baru’ is a new gaming app.

Parties shop around for crowd-pulling candidates, who in turn seek parties with the most cash. That’s the PDI-P. Hot tip: should Puan not be chosen, watch for Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo who’s into domestic issues.

Then comes the former Governor of Jakarta Dr Anies Baswedan. Another possible candidate is the West Java Governor and architect Ridwan Kamil.

The Australian angle

Both are US-educated cosmopolitans who know Australia. In past interviews with this correspondent they’ve applied the ‘warm relationships’ template. Unless there’s a crisis don’t expect specific policies beyond increasing trade.

The last real Ozophile was sixth president (2004 -14) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Nonetheless, we returned the affection for this president  and his wife Ani so much we bugged their phones and got caught.

“Be honest for once”: cost of secret trials rises as Government covers-up Timor spying fiasco

Former Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau once said living alongside the US is like sleeping with an elephant. In our case it’s a big-horned buffalo, normally tranquil but prone to quickly turn cranky. Best learn its moods, or as Foreign Minister Penny Wong suggests, ‘manage differences’.

The campaign will be robust and raucous. Bank on vile slurs involving faiths and wild claims about Australia’s US links and villainous plans. A favourite at the moment are war predictions over ownership of Australia’s Ashmore Reef, an uninhabited sand spit and nature reserve used by traditional fishers.

To Indonesians we’re a granary and stock-yard, distrusted, insignificant, unwelcoming and weird. Still, every new Australian PM dashes to Jakarta with a clutch of clichés about importance.

Don’t expect the next Indonesian president to reciprocate, or our mainstream media to keep you informed. The ABC has regular programmes on China, India and the US, but not on our next door neighbour, the world’s fourth largest country by population. The AFR apparently has a correspondent there, paid for by the Judith Nielsen Institute, not that there is regular evidence of it in their pages.

For the rest of our mainstream media, copy from Washington doesn’t need translating, so that’s the easy option.

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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