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Ignoring the Doings Next Door in where?

“By Duncan Graham”

On a recent edition of ABC TV’s free-for-all Summer Drum, participants sounded off about possible Democrat nominees for the 2020 US Presidential election.

Social commentator Jane Caro sprayed the screen with alternatives. The Australian columnist Greg Sheridan, who comes across as reasonable on the telly, and community advocate Aisha Novakovich tossed in their suggestions.

Host Adam Spencer assumed viewers knew all names and understood the American selection process, so didn’t intervene with descriptors. Nor did the talent interject: ‘Hey, this is asinine. We’ve got swags of homegrown issues to air.’

Weird political jostlings 16,000 kms away may make for jolly banter but that’s all.

Critical, and closer in time and space, is the 17 April Indonesian Presidential election. How many of us know the contenders, their policies and how these will affect the neighborhood?

The ABC and other media are doing little to erase the ignorance. News from the US comes pre-packaged it’s just download and upload, ideal for near-empty newsrooms. No translations required, no cultural and religious practices to explain.

Washington’s drab suits and gender imbalance looks much like Canberra. Particulars differ, but many issues are familiar and we’ve even adjusted to mispronunciations.

Not so next door in the world’s third largest democracy and most populous Islamic nation – though technically secular.

If there’s a further lurch to the right in Indonesian politics we may knock Bali off our holiday list for fear the morality police might start ‘sweeping’ hotels for the unwed in the same bed. We’ll also worry that tsunami warning systems still won’t work.

Till recently most observers were predicting current President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo will win a second five-year term, the maximum constitutionally allowed.

Apart from Widodo sitting easily with the electorate, his rival, Prabowo Subianto made tactical blunders. Foremost was supporting an actress who big-noted she’d been beaten up by Widodo thugs.

Police later revealed her bruises came from cosmetic surgery, which brightened the nation’s cheeks with much mockery.

Subianto stood in 2004 but lost by 6.3 per cent (133 million voted) largely because young social activists backed Widodo. They feared the former general would unravel reforms made since dictator Soeharto was ousted in 1998, throttle the Anti-Corruption Commission and curb the press, currently the freest in Asia.

Subianto, 67, is a mega-rich businessman with a string of resource companies, and well-entrenched in the oligarchy. He was once married to Soeharto’s daughter Titiek; his economist dad Sumitro was in Soeharto’s ministry.

Subianto served in East Timor and West Papua, attracting allegations of human rights abuses, still unsettled. He misjudged the mood for political change, was discharged for ‘misinterpreting orders’ and took refuge in Jordan.

On his return he tried to recover lost glories, courting other parties before starting Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement Party.) He has a stable of Portuguese Lusitano horses once bred for war. Subianto shouts his speeches and is reputed to have an explosive temper.

Jokowi, ten years younger, is a polar opposite, a mild-mannered village-bred Javanese and soft public speaker hooked on high-powered motorbikes. He started showing gravitas only recently.

A furniture-maker from a regional town he became the local mayor with a Mr Clean reputation, then got elected Governor of Jakarta

From this platform he sprang into the Presidency becoming famous for his blusukan (informal walkabouts). These are now rare following domestic terrorism attacks against police and churches.

His term has concentrated on reviving and expanding the nation’s moribund infrastructure that’s long crippled the economy, using huge loans from China. New ports, airports, toll-roads and rail lines are being built with astonishing speed.

Socially the nation has turned conservative. The jilbab (headscarf) once banned in the public service is now widely worn, worrying the ten per cent (26 million) of the non-Muslim population. Jokowi has done little to calm their fears.

Nor has he paid much attention to foreign policy, leaving that to the bureaucrats. Ultra nationalist Subianto could start promoting Indonesia as a military power. He’s already talking up overseas threats gleaned from American sci-fi.

Last year Widodo’s party boss, founding President Soekarno’s daughter Megawati, ordered him to accept senior Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, 75, as running mate.

Like Subianto, Widodo isn’t known for excess piety. First Lady Iriana and daughter Kahiyang Ayu seldom wear jilbab.

Amin’s presence is supposed to neutralise slurs that Widodo isn’t a ‘proper’ Muslim, but the coupling looks awkward.

Amin has railed against homosexuality, pluralism and non-mainstream Islamic sects. He backed huge 2016 protests against former Jakarta governor and ethnic Chinese Christian Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, now in jail for blasphemy.

During the trial Widodo abandoned his former colleague, dismaying human-rights activists who thought he was on their side.

Subianto has recruited Jakarta vice-Governor Sandiaga Uno, 49, as his sidekick. The slim US-educated personable businessman would make a better fit partnered with Widodo.

In a country where images matter more than policies, Uno comes across as cool Metro Man, suave in casual gear. Amin’s look is Retirement Village, comfy in traditional Islamic garb.

If Subianto wins, Uno may try to stop him castrating democracy, the knife used for 32 years by Soeharto; that could be like John Kelly managing Donald Trump.

It will be the reverse with Widodo, keeping Amin out of sight so the nation looks progressive, modern and upholding the rule of law, not a de-facto theocracy scaring investors.

Either way the contest will ebb and flow, moved by cultural and religious forces foreign to most Australians.

If we bone up our politicians might learn to avoid foot-in-mouth infections, like PM Scott Morrison jeopardising a free trade agreement by suggesting our embassy move to Jerusalem.

Whether this deal, hugely important to primary producers, will be salvaged this side of the election is doubtful. Neither candidate wants to be seen as pro-Australia and therefore anti Palestine.

Now that’s a topic worthy of Summer Drum.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 7 January 2019 and Edited by Indonesia Now Blogspot

(Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java.)

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