Is Jokowi’s Victory Good for Australia?


The historic victory of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Indonesia’s presidential election this month looks set to usher in a new era of political leadership for the fledgling democracy. From former furniture businessman to mayor of Surakarta, then governor of Jakarta, and soon-to-be president of a nation of nearly 250 million, the rapid rise of a figure from outside the traditional elite is bound to shake up Indonesian politics. But for countries like Australia, intent on improving ties with Indonesia yet perhaps reluctant to take the initiative, Jokowi’s victory could throw up as many challenges as opportunities.

At first glance, there are a lot of things to like. The election marks the first time that power in Indonesia will transfer from one popularly elected leader to another. Jokowi’s reputation, in particular, as a clean and transparent figure with a strong track record of responding to the basic needs of his constituencies makes him a credible partner to strengthen the bilateral relationship. A lot of his early policy proposals aim for a more inclusive economic growth: expanding infrastructure development, deepening agricultural reforms, overhauling the education system, and improving transparency within the police force.  These should tick all of the boxes back in Canberra.

But Jokowi’s election is not without its concerns. The most damaging charge relates to his lack of experience and institutional support at the national level. Although flanked by an experienced running mate in former Vice-President Jusuf Kalla and backed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), questions remain about his capacity to enact a difficult reform agenda while balancing competing interests within a coalition government. Whether Jokowi’s agenda will even venture far beyond domestic policy and just who will make up his foreign policy team will be important developments to watch.

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There were some disconcerting signs during the election that Jokowi might adopt a much more nationalist tone against Canberra. During a televised debate with ex-general Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi said there was a “lack of trust” between Indonesia and Australia and that if the asylum seeker issue could not be solved through dialogue, “we can bring them to international courts if necessary.” Although he voiced support for stronger bilateral ties through initiatives such as educational and cultural exchanges, there is clearly some ambiguity in Jokowi’s views on Australia. Working to insulate the relationship from “diplomatic shocks,” as ASPI analyst Natalie Sambh suggests, should be the top priority for both countries.

Australian businesses, hoping to take advantage of a wave of domestic reforms and foreign investment, may have to contend with some lingering economic nationalism from the election. The PDI-P, which backs Jokowi, has come out strongly in favour of maintaining “economic sovereignty,” vowing to reduce Indonesia’s dependency on foreign investors.  Plans to restrict the sale of national banks to foreign investors and cut energy imports in favour of domestic exploration, for instance, are hardly encouraging. In fact, the reaction from international markets has been surprisingly tepid since Jokowi’s victory was announced.

Tony Abbott was one of the world’s first leaders to congratulate the president-elect and he rightfully highlighted the significance of the election itself. Of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Abbott said that he “has provided Indonesia with wise leadership and political stability, consolidating democratization and economic growth. He remains a great friend of Australia.” Ensuring the same can be said of Jokowi should provide a useful starting point for navigating Australia’s relationship with Indonesia under new leadership.

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