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Implications of the Indonesian Presidential Elections

It is important Indonesia remains engaged in both regional and international affairs. It is uncertain what approach will be taken under a new administration. 

After a decade of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) presidency, Indonesia’s elections have brought equal parts excitement and apprehension about the country’s political future. Under SBY, Indonesia has sought to reaffirm its role as a regional power within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and develop its image as an activist global player. But it is less certain in which direction the country will head under a new president. Given Indonesia’s increased clout, by virtue of its population size, geostrategic significance, economic performance and character as a democratic, Muslim majority state, it is important Indonesia remains engaged in both regional and international affairs. Closer to home, Australia will be watching closely to see whether a president will emerge who is as pro-Western and supportive of bilateral ties with Australia as SBY has been. It is uncertain as to whether the current administration’s active diplomatic footprint will continue under a new one.

Part of this uncertainty results from the fact that the leading presidential candidate, Joko Widodo, has not yet outlined a clear vision for the country. Jokowi (as he is generally known) is popular among Indonesians due to his image as a grassroots reformer and whose background as a self-made entrepreneur stands him in stark contrast with traditional political elites. Despite a favourable track record as major of Solo and governor of Jakarta, Jokowi also has little experience working at the national level. His focus has been domestic issues, particularly those which concern poorer classes of Indonesians. Popularity is no substitute, however, for stewardship of a country of increasing regional and international importance.

Australian policymakers will be interested in watching how Indonesian foreign and defence policy unfolds under a Jokowi presidency. Given Jokowi’s inexperience, the appointment of sensible and competent ministers will play a role in shaping Indonesia’s outlook on world affairs. In particular, an experienced vice president will be important in ensuring Indonesia remains engaged in regional and international issues. There’s been some talk of former Vice President Jusuf Kalla as a potential running mate with Jokowi. Kalla’s proven credentials in conflict resolution would be of value: he helped solve inter-religious violence in Sulawesi in 2001 and steered Aceh’s rehabilitation after the 2004 tsunami. Of all potential Vice-Presidential candidates, Kalla can best ease Jokowi into the realm of international politics, but, at time of writing, no such announcements have been made.

The next most popular presidential candidate, former Kopassus commander Prabowo Subianto, provides no more certainty about Indonesia’s future foreign policy trajectory. In contrast to Jokowi, Prabowo has provided a tentative outline of his vision for Indonesia containing strong nationalistic tendencies. While Jokowi remains in the lead, it is worth noting that there will be a different set of foreign policy challenges should Prabowo come to power.

In either case, Indonesia’s reputation as a regional power and activist global player will make it easier for a new administration. Key concepts such as ‘non-alignment’ and ‘free and active’ have long shaped Indonesian foreign policy and provide the framework for future leaders. The challenge for any future administration will be maintaining the diplomatic footprint of the previous government under President Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

Natalegawa has been an influential and vocal figure in the projecting Indonesian foreign policy ideals. In recent years, Natalegawa’s activism has manifested in a number of ways, bringing prominence and gravitas to the perception of Indonesia as the de facto head of ASEAN. Indonesia’s role as an active regional power is reflected in Natalegawa’s proposal for a treaty of amity of cooperation across the Indo-Pacific to provide a framework for consultation and communication in order to contain regional conflict.

Likewise President Yudhoyono has shown a strong, personal interest in the foreign policy realm, promoting Indonesia as a ‘regional power, global player’ in many of his speeches and being engaged in initiatives such as the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals, climate change and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

At present, it is hard to see any of the presidential candidates being as enthusiastic about Indonesia’s foreign policy agenda as the current combination of president and foreign minister. Given Indonesia’s internal challenges and the focus of current presidential candidates, it is likely that domestic politics will dominate. For Australia, this could be problematic.

It has been a tumultuous eight months in the Australia-Indonesia relationship, despite an overall strengthening of ties over the last decade under SBY. The Coalition Government’s asylum seeker policy coupled with revelations of spying on the Indonesian president has caused diplomatic tension. At the lowest point, President Yudhoyono recalled Indonesia’s Ambassador to Australia and suspended some areas of defence and security cooperation. Since then, Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has been working together with her Indonesian counterpart to develop a Code of Conduct to help set bilateral ties back on track. There have been some signs of progress with the recent announcement that Indonesian Ambassador Najib Riphat Kesoema will return to Australia within the month. However there are no guarantees that the character of the next administration will be as pro-Australian. If there is an absence of diplomatic goodwill towards Australia, both sides will have to rely on promoting shared interests and the merits of practical cooperation.

Indonesia will continue to play a role in regional and international affairs: its size, geography, economy and character as a democratic, Muslim majority state alone dictate this. Its history as a non-aligned state and UN member will also help shape its foreign policy in future. The extent to which Indonesia chooses to exercise its influence will be a key question the next administration will have to answer.


Natalie Sambhi is an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

A longer version of this article will appear in an AIIA Policy Commentary to be published in May.

Published May 15, 2014