Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Project, Australian National University, and former Dean of the Asian Development Bank Institute, Tokyo.

Amid the current ups and downs of the Indonesia-Australia relationship we need to remember that while Australia has just had an election, Indonesia is in the process of preparing for one. Several, actually. Up to three, depending on how things go. And as Stephen Grenville has pointed out, the implications both for Indonesia and the whole of Southeast Asia are considerable.

The background to the impending changes in Indonesia is that while it is almost universally agreed among the noisy Indonesian commentariat that President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono is (to use the harsh adjectives one hears daily in Jakarta) weak, hopeless, indecisive, and even cowardly, the fact is that Indonesia has done well during his two five-year terms since 2004.

Indonesia is an immensely difficult country to run. 

The nation is still poor and faces remarkable development and economic challenges: nearly half the population lives on an income of less than $2 per day. There is an enormous variety of social, cultural and religious views struggling for unity within the diversity of the far-flung archipelago. And since the beginning of the post-Soeharto Reformasi in 1998, the outbreak of a very quarrelsome democratic system (over 40 political parties contested the 2009 legislative elections) has made Indonesia hard to govern. 

Given these extraordinary challenges, the incessant criticism from the Indonesian commentariat is a bit hard to take. SBY and Vice President Boediono have delivered against the key goals all national leaders should meet: they have maintained peace at home and abroad, and they have promoted strong economic growth and welfare.

Australians don't seem to realise it, but we have benefited enormously from the careful way SBY has guided Indonesia since he first took office in 2004. If one had to choose which large Muslim developing country to live next door to (alternatives include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Iran), which country would one choose but Indonesia?

Why, then, is there so much criticism of SBY within Indonesia?  The answer, in a sense, is simple: unrealistic expectations. In the 1950s, development scholars used to talk about how the 'revolution of rising expectations' reflected the idealistic hopes of the peoples of newly-independent nations for rapid economic and social progress once colonial rulers had been sent packing.

In Indonesia, the revolution of rising expectations was a key element of the politics of the 1950s and 1960s when the charismatic Sukarno was president. His successor, Soeharto, wisely dampened down the unrealistic revolutionary expectations. But more recently, amid the vibrancy of the democracy that has emerged since 1998, populist politicians have enthusiastically encouraged unrealistic expectations of government at every corner. Call it 'democracy'. Most countries have their share of populist politicians and Indonesia is no exception.

We – Australia, Indonesia, Southeast Asia – are on the cusp of a change. A key political transition will take place in Indonesia in 2014. Indeed, the transition is already underway because the race inside Indonesia is already underway. There will be, first, nation-wide elections for over 20,000 legislative positions at the central, provincial and district level in early April next year. And then in July Indonesia will go to the polls again in the first round of a presidential election. If no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first round, a second round will be held in September.

The choice Indonesian voters will make is important for many reasons, among them being that the Indonesian president is a key figure in ASEAN. The choice of the 120 million or so voters will greatly influence the regional environment Australia will need to work within during the five years to 2019.

Who is likely to be the next president of Indonesia? What do we know about their views on national and regional issues? A follow-up post will discuss these issues.

Photo by Flickr user CIFOR.