Indonesia enters new time of living dangerously

22 July 2014
The Australian Financial Review
Copyright 2014. Fairfax Media Management Pty Limited.   

Poll result Both aspirants to lead this huge nation have visions for its future. But the result must not be stolen in a dodgy legal process. Mark Carnegie

There is big trouble in Indonesia. The two presidential candidates are both claiming electoral victory and neither is backing down. If Joko Widodo is named the winner as expected and Prabowo Subianto pushes ahead with the challenge he has threatened, then things could get very ugly.

In a quarter of a century investing in the country, I have never been more worried. Even through the dark days of Suharto's demise I believed the country was cohesive and headed in the right direction.

The institutions the country has in place to resolve the issue of who is to be president have never been tested, even in a regional election, and could now be forced into action in the most important way possible. The electoral review process looks strikingly similar to Indonesia's notoriously corrupt court system, where a bag of cash is far more powerful than the right side of an argument.

That should scare any right-thinking Australian. If the Indonesian people feel the election has been stolen from them, it will send tensions soaring. Remember Indonesia is the country that invented the phrase "to run amok".

In the coming months it is not a fantasy to think that the country might tip into the same type of chaos prefigured by The Year of Living Dangerously.

No one can forget the incredibly potent scene at the end of the film where Mel Gibson boards the plane out of Jakarta. He walks onto the airfield as the world's fourth largest nation, and the globe's biggest Muslim country, descends into chaos.Suharto's rise to power

Legendary strongman Suharto, who was a relatively junior general at the time, seized power in the aftermath through a squeeze play on the military at a time of civil uncertainty. Some 50 years later, his former son-in-law could reprise this strategy by suborning a crucial part of the judiciary. It might not be a coup, but it would certainly not be democracy. His grab for power could start today.

Remember that as Suharto came to power in 1965, more than half a million people died in an orgy of killing that extended throughout the length of Indonesia. Indonesians have a long fuse, but explode with a big bang as evidenced by the events nearly 50 years ago. We all hope the country finds a particularly Indonesian compromise to its first real test of its democracy. It is not for us to judge who the Indonesians should select to lead their country, be it strongman or populist.

What matters, however, is that they do select him democratically by ensuring that the vote is not rigged. This is vital not just because cheating the people is morally wrong, but also because of the implications for the course of future events in our region.

The election that was carried out last week was essentially between an apprentice strongman who was marched out of the army by its top brass over a decade ago and a Lula-like populist who has shown himself an effective administrator in his previous roles.

From the selfish view of Australia, neither of the existing candidates are themselves a threat to our peace and prosperity. What we always have to fear is that someone completely unexpected comes from nowhere, to try to impose a form of radical Islam on the islands overwhelmingly moderate population. This seemed a fanciful notion until it was confirmed that Saudi Arabia has flooded the Indonesian election with money. They didn't do that to calm tensions or promote reason.Importance underestimated

Again Australia has failed to understand the importance of this situation. Indonesia matters to the world, and is vital to us, and yet we remain wilfully blind to our nearest neighbour. Australian politicians on either side of government don't seem to care enough to act if things go wrong.

The same could never have been said of Howard or Keating.

Indonesia is a country to be loved. It's a complex, and sometimes frustrating nation. Elizabeth Pisani in her wonderful book Indonesia Etc. explores the complex extremities of the archipelago. She is blogging madly about the election, for she knows how important it is.

To our north is a huge population of people who have lived for well over a decade in a noisy, Muslim democracy. There has been a peaceful transfer of power whenever they have voted. The nation has thrived since the end of its dictatorship and its success has been a tribute to its 230 million citizens.

You only need to compare it to what is happening throughout the Middle East where the candle of self-determination is being snuffed out, before one electoral cycle is complete. Imagine Libya or Egypt as your next-door neighbour then breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing that you live next door to the Indonesians.

Another unforgettable part of the now legendary movie is the haunting Vangelis music. When you hear it you think of Indonesia falling over the edge; for every engaged Australian you should have that music worm running around in your head today.

Mark Carnegie is principal of M.H. Carnegie & Co, and has had significant investments in Indonesia over the past 20 years.