It is a truism that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is one of its most important. Yet the bilateral relationship has often been troubled, sometimes deeply so, and may become so again.
The current success of the bilateral relationship can be attributed almost entirely to Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Until his presidency, Australia only kept good relations with previous presidents by bowing to Indonesia’s wishes.
With Yudhoyono, however, Australia found a genuine democrat and reformer with whom it had much in common, confirming that previous troubles reflected political rather than claimed cultural differences. However, Yudhoyono is now into his second and final term as president and his reformist agenda has become stalled by an unfriendly legislature and vested institutional interests.
Yudhoyono is not quite a lame-duck president, but his presidency increasingly looks like it will be characterised by the achievements in his first term in office. His second term is being devoted to just surviving. Despite elections still being three years away, the search has already begun for his replacement. That person will ultimately shape not only Indonesia but the state of Australia’s relationship with it.
There are eight likely candidates to replace Yudhoyono. Five of them are the product of late President Suharto’s rule and if elected are likely to turn back Indonesia’s political clock. Each of them is also likely to have a troubled relationship with Australia.
Suharto’s son-in-law, former Army Strategic Reserve commander and 2009 presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, is among the more troubling –and probable - presidential candidates. Prabowo was kicked out of the army for overseeing the shooting, kidnapping, torture and disappearance of student protesters in 1998. He has also been accused of numerous other human rights abuses, from East Timor and West Papua to Aceh.
Prabowo is likely to reflect an authoritarian and militaristic tendency. Reform of Indonesia’s military, which has dragged and remains incomplete, would almost certainly end on Prabowo’s watch.
Less likely as a future president but even more disturbing is Suharto’s youngest son, Tommy Suharto, who is best known for unintentionally wrecking companies he had corruptly acquired before he was jailed for 15 years – serving just four - for hiring a hit-man to murder a judge who convicted him of corruption. More positively, despite his continued wealth and influence, Indonesia has direct elections for the presidency and the young Suharto remains disliked by most Indonesians.
Former armed forces commander and previous presidential candidate, Wiranto, is likely to again tilt at the presidency. For a former military officer, Wiranto is a good administrator and not as authoritarian as some, but is also likely to end further reform of the military and to favour a more assertive international relations. Having been military commander overseeing the bloody events of 1999 in East Timor, Wiranto’s poor record on human rights will bring him into conflict with external human rights campaigners.
The chairman of the party that was Suharto’s political vehicle, Golkar, Aburizal Bakrie is being touted as a candidate by senior party members. Bakrie runs one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates and has been regularly tainted with allegations of corruption and tax evasion. As Economics Minister in 2004-5, Bakrie oversaw poor economic development and was accused of business nepotism. More recently, he was instrumental in pressuring into resigning Finance Minister and key reformer Sri Mulyani Indrawati, to thwart investigations into his companies.
Army Strategic and Reserve commander Pramono Edhie Wibowo, has also been tipped as a presidential front-runner. Despite being President Yudhoyono’s brother-in-law, he is regarded as being an ally of Prabowo Subianto. In 1999, Wibowo led a military Special Forces group in East Timor, although details of the secretive group’s activities are unknown. His father, Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, helped usher in the terror of 1965-66 in which hundreds of thousands of communists and suspected sympathisers were murdered and which established Indonesia’s military rule.
More positively, World Bank managing director and former finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati retains impressive reformist credentials and is closely aligned with Yudhoyono’s reformist agenda. For this reason, however, she will face significant obstacles in running for the presidency. Yudhoyono’s wife, Kristiani Herawati, is also touted as a possible contender, essentially as a front for Yudhoyono.
Another of Yudhoyono’s camp, Democratic Party chairman Anas Urbaningrum may also be a contender and would be likely to follow a Yudhoyono-ist agenda, as would the Coordinating Minister for Economy, Hatta Rajasa. Of the reform group, Indrawati looks the strongest potential candidate.
As in the past, the outcome of presidential elections will be determined not by policy but by personality; being good at karaoke pulls more votes than a sound economic policy. Yudhoyono was unusual in that he combined a high level of charisma – and a reasonable singing voice – with pro-poor, pro-jobs economic policies and an ability to negotiate the minefield that is Indonesian politics. He even had a useful army background, albeit as leader of the reform faction.
But Yudhoyono’s current inability to press forward shows that both reform and indeed democratisation are not pre-determined outcomes. Indonesia went politically backwards under Yudhoyono’s predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Australia-Indonesia relations followed suit. It is far from guaranteed this won’t happen again.