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

by Duncan Graham | Apr 28, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Indonesia’s grand old dame, Megawati Soekarnoputri, has finally announced her preferred candidate for next year’s presidential election. It means the race to replace Joko Widodo as president is on in earnest. Duncan Graham reports on the leading candidates and their relationships with Australia.

Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy after India and the USA. It is also our closest neighbour, but you wouldn’t know it if you only read mainstream media who have barely reported on the latest developments. Who the president of Indonesia is matters to Australia. At least the candidates themselves seem to be aware of that, using Australia to show their international ‘form’.

Footage-on-a-loop filled TV screens across Indonesia as the Muslim holy fasting month ended last week. Homes groaned with rellies and neighbours bringing pressies and goodwill.

But everyone also wanted to see the grand Idul Fitri nosh-up in Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s Central Java hometown of Solo. Who’d be there?

The President shuffling, uncertain, a ghost of the carefree character who took Malcolm Turnbull on a jolly meet-the-people market tour in 2015. The constitution precludes him running for a third term.

Nearby, forcing smiles and failing, the plump Prabowo Subianto, 71, a former general who’d be an embarrassment in any war room but still wants to lead the nation.

Also in wide-shot hobbling with a cane was Megawati Soekarnoputri, 76, the de-facto Queen of the Republic who had just whacked down Prabowo’s hopes by anointing her party’s candidate for the presidency.

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Ganjar Pranowo

The white-haired lawyer and Central Java Governor, Ganjar Pranowo, 54, is the man who could be running the show in 2024.

He was the only figure in this parade of ageing oligarchs looking fit and ready for the task of leading a nation of 273 million.

He got the nod six weeks ahead of the promised grand reveal. The scuttlebutt is that Megawati was forced to choose early because while she dithered other runners were already training, locally and in Australia.

Apart from Prabowo, the man to fear was absent at the Solo bash. The latest polls show Dr Anies Baswedan, 53, the NasDem (National Democrat) Party’s pick for the Presidency a nose behind Ganjar, 54, a moderate with no international profile.

Ganjar is in the most popular PDI-P (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) the fiefdom of Megawati, daughter of founding president Soekarno.

He cultivates an accessible all-folks image, cycling through markets to listen and yarn. It’s the blusukan (impromptu meeting) tactic used a decade ago by Jokowi in his successful upwards journey before a fear of assassins put him behind bodyguards. (In 2019 senior minister Wiranto was stabbed at an official function. He survived.)

Anies Baswedan

Baswedan’s environment is education so he was in happy land last month speaking at the ANU, meeting Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Reserve Bank Governor Dr Philip Lowe and chatting to expats in Sydney.

There aren’t too many. About 90,000 permanent residents plus 20,000 students are scattered across the wide brown land. But they’re the smart influencers who’ll tweet views to friends and families back home.

Baswedan’s visit helped polish his profile as a candidate taking foreign affairs, the economy and the environment seriously and at ease with the Western media.

Anies Baswedan also spent a dozen minutes looking relaxed on the overseas service ABC Australia.

The toughest question concerned weaponizing religion in the 2017 Jakarta Governorship campaign against the ethnic Chinese Christian incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama aka Ahok.

Anies’ matter-of-fact response ran: ‘When there’s a Muslim candidate and a Christian candidate, religious issues come into the equation.’

In his homeland, Anies’ ethnicity is being used to demonise because he has Hadhrami Arab ancestry from Southern Yemen.

This gives him cachet with rigid-stare Muslims though not with the majority abangan pribumi – the native Javanese who take a relaxed approach to their faith and put it second to nationalism. Jokowi is an example.

Prabowo Subianto

Prabowo, the Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) boss and self-appointed candidate has also done the dash Down Under as Defence Minister – his current position – for formal meetings.

To ensure exposure back home he took his personal ‘media team’ that taped him patronising about 40 post-grads (‘work hard’) in Canberra. See, I’m a statesman.

Had he fronted the Australian press the questions would have set his backers squirming. Why was he dishonourably discharged from the Army in 1998, and banned from the US for alleged human rights abuses in East Timor and West Papua?

What happened to the pro-democracy student activists allegedly tortured by troops under his command? Thirteen ‘disappeared’. With this background how can he hope to find the West’s respect?

A former Jakarta-based Australian diplomat wrote: ‘Those who know Prabowo say he has more faces than Sybil. One is never sure which Prabowo is on show, from charming and urbane to raving and irrational.’

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Indonesia is not Westminster

Indonesia’s style of democracy is different, which may be why Western media find it difficult to understand and avoid commenting.

Although Baswedan’s NasDem party looks middle-road it can’t be measured by the left/right gauge of the Westminster system. An ANU study found Indonesian politics ‘dominated by a cartel of parties characterised by their common desire to share the spoils of office, rather than by ideological or policy differentiation.’

The minors form what Melbourne University researchers awkwardly call a ‘rainbow coalition (nothing to do with gays) of multiple parties without any coherent ideology or clear policy platform’.

The result: no parliamentary opposition, an essential for a functioning democracy.

Turnouts at elections in Indonesia are high – 83 per cent of the 191 million registered in 2019. All get a direct vote by pushing a nail through a photo on the ballot paper.

What doesn’t get nailed is corruption which has worsened under Jokowi’s watch. Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, though ranked ‘flawed’ because of graft. Whoever becomes the next president, that needle is unlikely to move, for no candidates seem serious about curbing the national curse.

NasDem’s published platform includes a seven-point collection of trite. Example: ‘Build a democracy based on strong people who are called on to bring about a bright future.’

In 2019 NasDem won just over nine per cent of the vote, but in Indonesian politics voters go for personalities, not parties or policies which rarely get detailed and are soon ignored.

About a quarter of the population is aged between 18 and 30,  They want the rule of law to apply to all, less religion in state and private affairs, and a more egalitarian society.

In his two five-year terms Jokowi has focused on infrastructure and health care, but in the human-rights areas which don’t bother the rich, he’s thrown the race. His successor will probably do the same. That track’s too heavy.

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

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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