Indonesia: Two Tests For Megawati

2003

David Reeve

War on Iraq will create severe tests for President Megawati. It will not so much be about foreign policy, but how she handles the reactions at home. Indonesia has shown little Islamic fervour in its foreign policy. The Indonesian government has tried to craft a cautious, pragmatic policy approach, steering a path between Islamic friends and indebtedness to Western capital.

Such policy has annoyed Islamic communities in Indonesia, who have wanted to see more passion in policy. Major events in Palestine, Mindanao, Bosnia-Herzegovina have provoked storms of letters, protests, delegations and demonstrations from Islamic leaders and organisations. The government has been able to accommodate them in the past, but this time it may be more difficult. Recent mass demonstrations in Jakarta indicate the depth of feeling present in the general community.

Whatever Indonesian and American governments say, the war is being widely seen as an attack on Islam. There is anger at America’s unilateral decisions on the future state of the world. There is frustration at Indonesia’s weak status in world affairs. Popular theories of Christian/Zionist/ capitalist/CIA conspiracies against Islam and Indonesia are being strengthened. Britain and Australia have become a focus for this sentiment. Australia's involvement in the war confirms mistrust of Australia as a reliable neighbour.

The government has reason to be particularly worried about demonstrations and moves to throw out foreigners (‘sweepings’). Embassies are always a focus. There is concern amongst Australian, British and American communities in Indonesia that their businesses, schools, professionals, students and tourists may suffer reprisals. This will be the last straw for some foreign companies. Possible violence against foreigners complicates Indonesia’s domestic and foreign policies.

The second test for Megawati is the impact of Islamic fervour on the presidential elections scheduled for mid-2004. Indonesian politics is highly focussed on these elections. But almost nothing is known about changes in Indonesian voting patterns. This is because there have only been two democratic elections, in 1955 and 1999, and because Indonesian parties offer charismatic leaders rather than policies. The 2004 election will be the first opportunity to study voting shifts.

Megawati’s popularity has waned, but it is unclear where discontented supporters would go. To Amien Rais, who is preparing to lead a major challenge? Or to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, ex-military, and coordinating minister for political and security affairs? The latter may benefit from a growing discontent with civilian politicians, which asserts: ‘none of them is any good ...we need a firmer hand’.

With elections a year away, Megawati does not need this war.

WATCHPOINT: Can Indonesia’s security forces maintain their improved reputation after the Bali bombings?

 

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