Gary Hogan was the first foreigner to graduate from Indonesia's Institute of National Governance (Lemhannas) and was Australia's Defence Attaché to Indonesia from 2009 to 2012.
For over eight years, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has cut a large and impressive figure on the world stage. SBY's profile is Gorbachev-like. Regionally, he has restored his nation to pre-eminence. Globally, he has pursued an activist foreign policy in the UN and international forums like the G20. He has even been knighted by the Queen.
All of this has been good for Australia-Indonesia relations. But like Gorbachev, SBY's domestic standing has declined as steadily as his international stocks have risen, despite an impressive economic record. He is viewed widely among Indonesia's commentariat as a prevaricating leader who has difficulty controlling an ill-disciplined party and a factionalised cabinet. There is a gathering tide of opinion across the Indonesian electorate that a strong, almost authoritarian, leadership style will be needed to make good the reform slippages of the SBY decade.
Yudhoyono's role at its helm will end next year, when he will be ineligible to stand for a third term as president. As next-door neighbor and strategic partner, Australia needs now to start examining the form guide and following the smart money. Indonesia post-2014 is certain to be more problematic for us than the SBY years as we seek to negotiate a closer and more prosperous relationship with the world's fourth largest country and largest Muslim nation.
While the field is by no means final, a clearer picture of the front runners for next year's election is starting to emerge.
Retired military officers are as prominent as always, including the president's brother-in-law (who currently heads the Indonesian Army) and a senior cabinet minister. Yudhoyono is himself a former general. A 2011 poll by Indonesia’s largest national newspaper, Kompas, concluded that most Indonesians of lesser education (the vast majority of voters) wanted a president with a military background.
As they did in 2009, former president Megawati and former vice president Jusuf Kalla are likely to chance their arm. Kalla is more fancied than his party's official nominee, businessman Aburizal Bakrie. The power of money politics notwithstanding, most pundits consider Bakrie unelectable due to his poor public image. Kalla, with no Javanese bloodline, would need to buck a trend of elected presidents coming from Indonesia's most populous island. Not unthinkable, but akin to winning the US presidency without carrying the Midwest.
Dark horses are always possible in Indonesia's volatile political scene and may yet emerge. Like Joko Widodo, the unassuming populist mayor of Solo in Central Java, the 18th century seat of the Mataram Kingdom, who was last year swept into office as governor of Indonesia’s ten million-strong mega city, Jakarta.
Among the various candidates, Australia should pay careful heed to the fortunes of former general and renowned strongman Prabowo Subianto (pictured), who is shaping up early in the election campaign as a reasonable each-way bet. The son of a prominent finance and trade minister who spent his formative years abroad, Prabowo graduated from Indonesia's military academy the year after SBY. He then married one of the daughters of Indonesia's autocratic leader, General Suharto, and gained notoriety for his actions in East Timor, Papua and Jakarta in the final days of his father-in-law's regime.
As a presidential candidate, Prabowo fits the bill on a number of levels. He was Megawati's running mate in her unsuccessful 2009 campaign, and he will have learned much from that. His reputation feeds the belief that Indonesia needs a return to assertive leadership, while his association with the former first family strikes a chord among the cross section of Indonesians who feel let down by democracy and who harbour a genuine nostalgia for the Suharto era.
Those who know Prabowo say he has more faces than Sybil. One is never sure which Prabowo is on show, from charming and urbane to raving and irrational. His reputation as a hothead is infamous. He once burst into the presidential palace demanding to see President Habibie, brandishing a firearm. When he was drummed out of the army for exceeding his authority, Prabowo sent himself into exile in Jordan, where he was guest of his close friend, fellow military man King Abdullah.
The Prabowo spin, from prime-time TV commercials to billboards in all major cities, is pure Mad Men. His billionaire elder brother, who bankrolled his 2009 tilt with Megawati, has engaged a prominent New York advertising agency to refine and project the Prabowo image for Election 2014. While rumors surround the state of his health, the 62-year-old Prabowo has a strong public presence, whether indulging his passion for polo or supporting members of his Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party, attired in the conservative garb of a devout Muslim. One handicap in a conservative country is that he is single, having long since divorced Suharto's daughter.
Internationally, Prabowo carries an odious legacy because of his association with the Suharto regime and allegations of human rights abuses. He is currently banned from entering the US. Prabowo has tried to address his poor reputation with foreigners by portraying a kinder, gentler face to the world, as he did last August in a landmark speech to a distinguished gathering in Singapore. It is no accident Prabowo spoke in Singapore when he wanted to reach an international audience. It would be easy for a country like Singapore, whose pretensions to democracy are at best dubious, to engage with Prabowo were he to occupy the presidential palace next year.
It would be less easy for Australia. We would need to put hard-nosed self-interest ahead of certain principles before candidate Prabowo could address a similar forum here. General Prabowo's human rights record would make it difficult for him to tread on Australian soil without first addressing some serious questions. In one sense, this is ironic. Prabowo would be the most Westernised leader Indonesia has ever had.
Like Australia, Indonesia adjoins both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It also lies across a key international trade route. As the US shifts its strategic weight toward Asia, using Australia as a fulcrum, Indonesia is already key to its wider global interests. Should the Prabowo campaign gather momentum in coming months, watch the welcome mat get rolled out in Washington to receive him. In the Asian century, we need also to be realistic about how we relate to the behemoth off our northwest shelf. Never again should we allow relations with Indonesia to be defined by a single issue, as they were over East Timor.
It is quite possible that the next president of the Republic of Indonesia will be someone we instinctively recoil from. With the countdown to the election already underway, Australians should work out sooner rather than later where our national interests lie, and how we might position ourselves to achieve them.
Don't get me wrong. A democratic Indonesia is a good thing that has transformed the art of the diplomatically possible between our countries. Gone are the negative aspects of Suharto's plutocracy. But gone, too, are its positive aspects, like the strategic certainty that came with the knowledge Indonesia would be led by an internationally-moderate and generally pro-Western leader, which is what Suharto undeniably was, for all his other faults.
Democracies have a habit, from time to time, of delivering unexpected, even unpalatable results. We will no doubt respect the choice Indonesians make next year. But we should anticipate a leader who will not make things as easy for us as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did for ten years. Which is why we need to get smarter about managing the relationship, refusing to let sideshows like the 2011 live cattle imbroglio damage or distract from our broader narrative with Indonesia.
One thing is for certain. Life after SBY will prove more, not less, challenging for our bilateral relationship.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.