Here’s what Indonesia election means to Australia

Indonesia is set to choose a new president on February 14, marking a significant day of voting and celebrations in the world’s third-largest democracy. The current president, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who has been in office since 2014, is ineligible for re-election due to term limits. Three candidates are competing for the presidency, with Prabowo Subianto, the current defense minister, leading in polls and poised to become the country’s next leader. Prabowo’s running mate is Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of Jokowi.

The Australian government has expressed a desire to strengthen ties with Indonesia, as evidenced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit in June 2022, shortly after his election victory. The geopolitical significance of Indonesia, situated in a sensitive region, makes it crucial for Australia to collaborate with the country in maintaining peace in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia’s foreign policy, characterized by non-alignment, involves engagement with the US, Australia, and China. This stance is expected to persist under a potential Prabowo presidency, emphasizing continuity with Jokowi’s policies. However, differences in Prabowo’s personality may pose challenges for foreign partners, as he is described as less receptive to feedback and more unpredictable.

Despite Prabowo’s potential presidency, the general expectation is for a continued pursuit of friendly relations with Australia, the US, and China, along with a commitment to ASEAN centrality. The Indonesian economy, now the 14th largest globally, could reach the top five by 2040, highlighting its growing importance in international affairs.

Albanese acknowledged the need to enhance Australia’s position as Indonesia’s trade partner during his 2022 visit. Dr. Hilman Palaon from the Indo-Pacific Development Centre expects all three presidential candidates to maintain positive discussions on trade, visa access simplification, ASEAN collaborations, and increased foreign investment.

Despite concerns about Prabowo’s alleged past involvement in human rights abuses, a victory for him is not anticipated to lead to a surge in such abuses. However, there are doubts about the likelihood of addressing historical issues if he assumes office.

A notable aspect of the election campaign is Prabowo’s successful rebranding from a military strongman to a “harmless grandpa.” This transformation aims to appeal to Indonesia’s youth vote, featuring social media content showcasing his softer and more relatable side, such as dancing on TikTok and cuddling with his cat on Instagram.

This shift in Prabowo’s image from a military figure to a more approachable persona has been a significant aspect of the election campaign. Embracing social media, Prabowo’s team portrays him as more than a former army general, showcasing his ability to engage in lighthearted and fun activities. The emphasis on his “harmless grandpa” image is particularly targeted at Indonesia’s vast youth demographic, utilizing platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

Despite the concerns surrounding Prabowo’s past, including allegations of involvement in kidnapping and torture of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s and rights abuses in Papua and Timor-Leste, he has consistently denied any wrongdoing. Prabowo’s travel ban to the US, lifted when he assumed the role of defense secretary in 2019, drew objections from organizations like Amnesty International.

Should Prabowo secure victory, it is anticipated that there may not be a substantial reckoning with the alleged past transgressions. While there is skepticism about the potential for an increase in human rights abuses across Indonesia under his leadership, there is also a cautious approach regarding the acknowledgment and resolution of historical issues.

The outcome of the Indonesian election holds significant implications for Australia, given the nations’ geopolitical ties and economic interests. The commitment to strong bilateral relations and cooperation on trade, visa access, and foreign investment remains a focal point, irrespective of the election result. As Australia navigates this potential leadership change, understanding and effectively engaging with Prabowo’s personality and leadership style are identified as crucial elements in maintaining a constructive relationship between the two nations.

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