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Voters in Indonesia look to have opted for open society over ‘strong man’

This election was a crucial moment for Indonesia. Former general Prabowo Subianto’s campaign rhetoric made it clear that voters were faced with a stark choice between consolidation of the democratic reforms…

Election workers add a touch of World Cup colour to the process as a women casts her vote in Surabaya. EPA/Fully Handoko

This election was a crucial moment for Indonesia. Former general Prabowo Subianto’s campaign rhetoric made it clear that voters were faced with a stark choice between consolidation of the democratic reforms that Indonesia embraced after the fall of Soeharto in 1998, and the open society they created, or the possibility of a return to the authoritarian system that prevailed for 32 years before that.

Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, faced a “black” campaign of smears and innuendo of a kind not seen before in Indonesian elections. He also had to overcome a sophisticated grass-roots campaign bankrolled by Prabowo’s huge family wealth. This and the Jokowi campaign’s wooden performance turned his convincing lead into a knife-edge margin.

But if the official “quick count” numbers are right, then it appears that in the end Indonesians opted by a small margin to keep “muddling though” rather than put their faith in a “strong man” again.

This is good news for Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. Australia would have faced real difficulty in dealing with Prabowo, given his dark human rights record, including in Papua and East Timor, to say nothing of his volatile temperament.

It will not be all plain sailing, however. We can expect a period of political turbulence before results are confirmed in a month’s time, as Prabowo and his supporters won’t give up easily. A swathe of disputed returns is likely to be lodged with the courts.

Even if he is indeed sworn in on October 20, the new president Jokowi will be under huge pressure to win legitimacy from almost half the population - particularly by demonstrating nationalist credentials. We can therefore expect tougher responses on issues of Indonesian territorial integrity than has been the case when Australia’s “best friend in the region”, outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was in the palace.

How the Coalition government works with Indonesia’s incoming administration over the next 12 months will likely decide how the bilateral relationship fares for years to come.

A Jokowi victory offers the chance for a re-set that can put the wire-tap tensions of the last eight months behind us, and get the relationship back on track. And clearly, finalising the “roadmap” agreement on military, intelligence and people smuggling that Jakarta requires to lift our diplomatic relationship from its current officially downgraded status will be a vital part of this. This needs to be signed off before Yudhoyono steps down in October.

The good news is that Jokowi has repeatedly made it clear that negotiation and dialogue are his preferred first options in resolving international disputes. In the case of Australia, he has emphasised government-to-government links, business-to-business links and, best of all, people-to-people links. If he is serious about this, then that gives Australia plenty to work with.