Choice between going backwards or forward to a fresh future

06 June 2014

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 05/06/2014

Reporter: Tony Jones

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TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Last night Tony Abbott met face-to-face with Indonesia's President to begin repairing a relationship strained by tensions over spying and asylum boats; but to what end? Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is now in the dying days of his presidency and an election campaign is already underway to replace him. So who'll prevail and will they be as accommodating towards Australia as Yudhoyono? 

Well to talk about the relationship and the presidential campaign that started yesterday, we were joined from Jakarta just a short time ago by political analyst and commentator Wimar Witoelar. 

Wimar Witoelar, thanks for joining us.


TONY JONES: Is President Yudhoyono trying to repair the relationship with Australia as quickly as possible so the new president doesn't inherit the bad relations with Australia?

WIMAR WITOELAR: Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I'm sure he's doing just that because he actually is pretty much well-intentioned as far as international relations are concerned with Australia, but we've had bad luck on both sides, but now I think both sides are trying to make the best of the remaining time.

TONY JONES: So the asylum seeker turnback policy was highly problematic, but the main source of tension came from the Snowden leaks about Australians spying. What's the minimum that Indonesia will agree to in a code of conduct, a mutual code of conduct governing spying?

WIMAR WITOELAR: Well, that is an issue for the higher halls of government in which the population does not necessarily spend time on, and being part of that wider population now, I couldn't give you an honest answer. There's no attention in the public right now between Australia and Indonesia, especially on that issue, so I don't know what the minimum would be, honestly.

TONY JONES: So is there no tension about the turnback policy now? Has that dissipated and gone away?
WIMAR WITOELAR: In this week and these two weeks all the attention has been on the presidential elections, so I think this should remain so until July, and unless there's something drastic or a big major blunder coming from any of the one sides, it should remain calm until the election.

TONY JONES: Well there are two serious candidates for President: the Governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, and the former Special Forces General Prabowo Subianto. Are either of them likely to be as friendly to Australia as President Yudhoyono is?

WIMAR WITOELAR: Jokowi probably would be much like Yudhoyono and at least he's predictable and he has more experience on the ground and even with international relations and his kind of people are not the kind to upset any kind of international balance. On the Prabowo side, we don't know. He's a really big question mark because he hasn't practically - he hasn't done anything in public office since he was commander of the Special Forces in 1998. And the coalition that he's moulded that keeps getting more and more people aboard consists of the most unusual types, including some extreme types, extreme Muslim radicals, extreme nationalists, even very corrupt people. So I wonder how he's going to manage that coalition once he gets elected. Of course he is known as not being the most stable of persons also, so we are hoping that the public will vote for the more sane choice, which is Jokowi.

TONY JONES: So how close do you think the presidential election will be? Because until now, Jokowi has had a very big lead in the polls.

WIMAR WITOELAR: My very random guess, educated guess, would be that it probably will balance to about the same margin because it's true that Prabowo's party is working very hard and they have very good party machinery, they have very strong people and they have lots of money. But the stepping up of the campaign has also provoked them into some major blunders, which have been counterproductive. On the other hand, Jokowi's people have not made any major increases, but they have not made any major blunders. And if you look at it as a vote of emotion at the end, the groundswell of emotion for Jokowi is much stronger than it is for Prabowo since it's highly-managed campaign by a sophisticated machinery, not a campaign of the heart.

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TONY JONES: Let's look closer at Prabowo if we can because he's likely to be the more controversial president if he wins. In what ways could he be problematic as President?

WIMAR WITOELAR: Well, first of all, if he becomes President he will have to cope with the coalition, which has demands on opposing sides, from the most extreme Muslims to the most extreme neo-liberals of the Western ilk and from the most corrupt - most corrupt - he doesn't have any clean people on his side. And dealing with that kind of group is very difficult, especially as Prabowo has not had any political experience. He's - some people say he has leadership riding in a parade on a horse with a sabre, he looks very dapper, but he's used to leading military men. He's led tens of battalions, but not really engaged with the people. He is known to have been angry at reporters and at people who shove around at him too close. You can get that testimony from the press. So, just to hold his temper will be a major task, if he wins

TONY JONES: So the most disturbing issues relate to his actions in 1998 when he was the head of the military (inaudible) which was charged with ensuring the security in Jakarta. What is it exactly that he's alleged to have done?

WIMAR WITOELAR: He has admitted to organising the kidnapping of - I forget what it was, maybe 20 people, and actually having them returned, but there have been about a few more people who have disappeared that he does not take the blame for, but who have not reappeared. So in total, that episode of kidnapping is still leaving some seven or eight people out in the dark since 16 years ago. And he has not once taken the opportunity to explain the whole matter, although he keeps saying that he's innocent, but he refuses to appear before the Human Rights Tribunal or before any searching interview show because he said it's not his obligation. He always refers to the people, that they will cast their vote according to what they think. Unfortunately, the justice system in Indonesia has not been able to override that reluctance on Mr Prabowo to face justice. So it's true we will have to look at the elections and see what comes about. Now, the blessing in disguise is once he fails in this bid for the presidency, then he should be gone forever because his support will have eroded, his money is now almost gone. This is his last chance, actually.

TONY JONES: In big campaign events he has presented himself as a sort of military strongman. He gets flown in on choppers, as you mentioned yourself earlier; he parades on an Arab stallion in front of uniformed supporters. This has led some to make comparisons with Russia's President Putin. What sort of president would he actually make?

WIMAR WITOELAR: I think Putin is far more intelligent than him and has far more experience in calculating. He has no experience except bravado, and for all his show of macho, of heroism in public, it invites the same contempt on people who are scared stiff of having us go back to those military times. Believe you me, Indonesia was not happy during the military times of Suharto, and now - yesterday Prabowo issued a statement that he wants to make Suharto an official hero of the nation, which angers the demonstrators of '98. They said, "If Suharto is the hero, what are we? What are the demonstrators?" So, he's leaving really unsolved tracks in his PR campaign.

TONY JONES: Well the contrast to Governor Widodo, or Jokowi, couldn't really be starker. He likes to make unscheduled visits to the poorest neighbourhoods in Jakarta and mingle with the crowds. Now, the biggest question mark over him, though, is one of experience and also whether Indonesians will regard him as having the strength that they appear to like in leaders.

WIMAR WITOELAR: I think that people underestimate his strength because the media's controlled by the other party, by Prabowo and by Bakrie and they do not show the achievements he's had, of which there are many, not very substantial but very many in the city of Solo, where he cleaned out the traders along the street, the markets and made the city clean. In Jakarta he has made the major river clean and he has cleaned out the market which was full of thugs. So he's done all these things. He's elevated the - he's increased the average time of traffic - average speed of traffic from 13 kilometres per hour to 17 kilometres. Small comfort, but it's an increase. So he does have some experience. He has international recognition. He once voted in some forum as Mayor of the Year or something and he is constantly engaged in international conferences. I have seen him on international TV. Well, his English would not qualify for a speech contest, but the substance is real. So he is a real, honest person and people who value a clean voice over all the voices of deception we have had in the past would still go with him.

TONY JONES: Some people like to compare Jokowi to President Obama and in some ways there are echoes of the Obama campaign here, at least the campaign against Obama, because there are question marks being raised by Jokowi's opponents over whether he is in fact more Chinese than Indonesian and whether he is a true Muslim.

WIMAR WITOELAR: Yeah. Well as far as the Muslim issue is concerned, that's, you know, baseless because we have gone past that religious bias. But speaking of religion, Prabowo's family is all Christian and he himself was Christian until he married Suharto's daughter. So - but they are so aggressive in their campaign that they never admit it.

But anyway, although I am a supporter of Jokowi, not really originally a supporter, but somebody who wants to see somebody avoid Prabowo become President and he has the voice of the people. But to compare him to Obama would be a far stretch of the imagination. Obama is educated, is witty, is smart, is everything that Jokowi is not. Jokowi probably is more honest than Obama because Obama is a politician and Jokowi has just recently assumed public office. So he is our own leader. He is Indonesia's leader, which we have never seen since our founding. Sukarno was not like that, Suharto was not like that, Habibie was not like that, Wahid was not like that, Megawati was not like that. Who's the other one? SBY was not like that. So, he's just like you and me - maybe like me, not like you, but he's very unsophisticated, unassuming and it's a fresh voice. And, oh, one thing: whatever his limitations, he will get full support from the intellectuals, the academia, the civil society. In my term, all the good guys are on Jokowi's side.

TONY JONES: One final question: how critical is this election going to be, because voters are being presented here with a choice of two candidates very far apart, one that represents what you could call the military old order and one who seems to have a more freer and modern approach to politics?

WIMAR WITOELAR: It is a choice, not an echo, so it is a choice between going backwards maybe at least 16 years to '98 and going forward to an uncertain but fresh future. It's going back to people who are nostalgic for Suharto and people who want to leave the Suharto times as far behind as they can. This is a real choice. It's a choice for the future of the country.

TONY JONES: Wimar Witoelar, we'll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us tonight.



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