Friday, November 22, 2013

Australia Row a ‘Godsend’ as Indonesian Leader Stumbles Into Twilight

His popularity is sliding in the polls. Accusations of graft are mounting against political allies. 

The once-powerful economy is limping.

As Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono struggles in the twilight of his second term with elections looming next year, this week’s diplomatic brawl with Australia offers an opportunity to stoke nationalist sentiment and rebuild support.

A storm of resentment against Australia has blown up after reports emerged that Canberra spied on top Indonesians including, most sensitive of all, Yudhoyono’s wife.

But the indignation underscores an uncomfortable truth for the president: his administration is growing increasingly irrelevant and the nationalist fervor is unlikely to provide enough momentum to revive his lame-duck presidency.

“This is a God-sent moment for us and we shouldn’t waste it,” said Ruhut Sitompul, a senior member of Yudhoyono’s ruling Democratic Party and a confidant of the president.

“You can see the people who are out there supporting us in the streets,” he said. “I think our ratings in opinion polls will definitely go up because everyone is uniting behind the president and behind the Democratic Party because our response has been very firm.”

Yudhoyono has served two terms and cannot run again. He will be focusing on his legacy while his party will be hoping to turn the controversy to their advantage and stay in power.

But it remains to be seen how much of a gift the row with Australia will turn out to be.

While there have been some anti-Australia protests, they have been modest compared with demonstrations during the last major rift in 1999 when Australian troops went into East Timor after the Indonesian military violently pulled out of the former Indonesian colony.

Noticeably, presidential hopefuls and senior politicians from other major parties have kept largely silent on the issue, suggesting any push to build nationalistic sentiment may not gain wide traction.
“Our government has been very harsh in its reaction,” Prabowo Subianto, a former general and a front-runner in the presidential race, told media this week. ”Australia is an important country so if possible we should find a way to maintain good relations.”

 ’Welcome distraction’

Indonesia’s outrage was sparked by reports quoting documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that Australia had tried to monitor the phones of senior Indonesian officials in 2009.

Yudhoyono announced on Wednesday he was freezing military and intelligence cooperation with Australia, including over asylum seekers, which has long been an irritant in relations.

The row comes as Indonesia’s economic growth has slowed. Twin deficits in the current account and in trade, and a sliding rupiah, have dampened investor sentiment in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

It also comes as the ruling party faces a sharp drop in popularity over a series of graft scandals that dragged in a cabinet minister and members of Yudhoyono’s inner circle and which could come to court just as parties gear up for parliamentary elections in April.

It is not just parliament at stake.

Parties must win at least 20 percent of the national vote, or 25 percent of parliamentary seats, to nominate a candidate for July’s presidential election. Judging by the most recent polls, Yudhoyono’s party is unlikely to reach that threshold.

The party enjoyed 40 percent of national support at its peak in 2010, but is projected to gain only 7 percent of the vote in 2014, according to pollsters.

Nurhayati Assegaf, a senior member of the Democratic Party, acknowledged that corruption cases had hurt the party but said the president’s leadership would help the party.

“We are determined to improve our image by showing our constituents all over Indonesia that we — Yudhoyono and the Democratic Party — we are successful leaders … and we can defend the country when the need arises,” Assegaf said. ”What the president has done and said in response to the spying issue shows his effort in solving the problem.”

Political analyst Kevin O’Rourke said the row with Australia was a “welcome distraction” for Yudhoyono, but it would only be temporary.

“When elections arrive, voters will be thinking about larger issues of governance and economic management, rather than tales of espionage and bilateral relations,” he said.


  1. Australia’s row with Indonesia might mark a turning point for the good
    The two nations have always had their ups and downs: the latest diplomatic rift could bring about new opportunities for honesty
    Make no mistake, the latest rift in Australia-Indonesia diplomatic ties over allegations of spying on Indonesia’s president and his close circle is serious. But it’s one moment in a relationship that has had many ups and downs.
    That said, Australia and Indonesia are not always natural partners, and in some instances their security interests diverge. These spying revelations, as uncomfortable as they may be, have flushed these divergent positions out into the public eye, and might provide an opportunity for Australia and Indonesia to be frank with one another. The two countries need to decide what kind of relationship they want in future and how deep a level of co-operation they are prepared to commit to. This might be the right moment for our leaders to have such a conversation.
    Intelligence might even be the right place to start. It’s reported that Indonesia is now looking to boost its intelligence capabilities. If that happens, Australia might consider how to help shape those processes. As my Australian Strategic Policy Institute colleague Benjamin Schreer has argued, it's in Australia's interest to have a more capable Indonesia. Without overstating the level of influence we have on Indonesia’s processes, there’s an opportunity to explore what role Australia can play in working together with Indonesia in intelligence.
    It's not going to be easy to make progress in the short term. The latest row is over a substantive issue and Indonesia is understandably disinclined to do Australia any favours. But the Lombok treaty is still in force, and reflects the fundamental fact that the two countries recognise that they have to work together. In time this might be seen as a turning point for the good.

  2. Marty Natalegawa positioning for future
    INDONESIAN Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is engaged in a drawn-out interview for his own job, with the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono fading into its twilight days and SBY, as he is popularly known, fighting to secure for himself a legacy at home and abroad.
    That's the view of one of Australia's foremost analysts of Indonesian politics, Marcus Meitzner, who points out that this week's rolling outrage from the Istana Merdeka - the graceful colonial-era presidential palace in Jakarta's north - has given Yudhoyono a vital chance to star on the domestic stage.
    - See more at:

  3. Australia and Indonesia are neighbours, but not the blend to be good friends
    THE domestic politics swirling around the Australia/Indonesia eavesdropping spy scandal run both ways and neither is attractive.
    There's no surprise many Indonesians, at all levels, don't like Australia or Australians. Partly, it's because people there think we're arrogant, bullying and condescending but it's also a reflection of being a big country that is often beholden to a smaller, western nation.
    Many Australians, despite the hoards hordes who crowd the beaches and bars at Kuta in of Bali, are suspicious or disdainful of Indonesians, regarded as foreigners with foreign religions who are not adverse averse to bombing our countrymen and women in the name of their god.
    The ugly side of these prejudices are never far below the surface, whether it's burning paper Australian flags in Yogyakarta or snide calls to talkback in Sydney.
    Our future is going to be more intertwined with Indonesia's than most Australians imagine.
    We will have to our north a country with a population of more than a quarter of a billion people, including the largest congregation of Muslims on earth, and a significant growing middle class that will present huge opportunities for Australian businesses and service providers. in the decades to come.
    We will also soon have, in the near future, a very close neighbour which will be looking to spend more than us on defence than we do.
    That the current storm over eavesdropping in particular and spying in general comes as the Indonesian election season gets into full swing is just one more problem for Tony Abbott and his government to ponder and worry about.
    It's a given that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the best friend Australia has had in charge of Indonesia but it has to be remembered he has still suspended this hasn't stopped this Indonesian president from suspending cooperation between our nations on two occasions during his tenure.
    The foreign policy community in Canberra fears these current problems will play into next year's presidential election and a fervent nationalist will be in power for the next five years, just as these big coming changes move into place. By Dennis Atkins ‘The Courier Mail’ Brisbane