Australia row a “godsend” as Indonesian leader stumbles into twilight

Australia row a “godsend” as Indonesian leader stumbles into twilight

JAKARTA - His popularity is sliding in the polls. Accusations of graft are mounting against political allies. The once-powerful economy is limping.

As Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono struggles in the twilight of his second term with elections looming next year, this week's diplomatic brawl with Australia offers an opportunity to stoke nationalist sentiment and rebuild support.

A storm of resentment against Australia has blown up after reports emerged that Canberra spied on top Indonesians including, most sensitive of all, Yudhoyono's wife.

But the indignation underscores an uncomfortable truth for the president: his administration is growing increasingly irrelevant and the nationalist fervour is unlikely to provide enough momentum to revive his lame-duck presidency. "This is a God-sent moment for us and we shouldn't waste it," said Ruhut Sitompul, a senior member of Yudhoyono's ruling Democratic Party and a confidant of the president.

"You can see the people who are out there supporting us in the streets ... I think our ratings in opinion polls will definitely go up because everyone is uniting behind the president and behind the Democratic Party because our response has been very firm."

Yudhoyono has served two terms and cannot run again. He will be focusing on his legacy while his party will be hoping to turn the controversy to their advantage and stay in power.

But it remains to be seen how much of a gift the row with Australia will turn out to be.

While there have been some anti-Australia protests, they have been modest compared with demonstrations during the last major rift in 1999 when Australian troops went into East Timor after the Indonesian military violently pulled out of the former Indonesian colony.

Noticeably, presidential hopefuls and senior politicians from other major parties have kept largely silent on the issue, suggesting any push to build nationalistic sentiment may not gain wide traction.

"Our government has been very harsh in its reaction,"Prabowo Subianto, a former general and a front runner in the presidential race, told media this week. "Australia is an important country so if possible we should find a way to maintain good relations."


Indonesia's outrage was sparked by reports quoting documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that Australia had tried to monitor the phones of senior Indonesian officials in 2009.

Yudhoyono announced on Wednesday he was freezing military and intelligence cooperation with Australia, including over asylum seekers, which has long been an irritant in relations.

The row comes as Indonesia's economic growth has slowed. Twin deficits in the current account and in trade, and a sliding rupiah, have dampened investor sentiment in Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

It also comes as the ruling party faces a sharp drop in popularity over a series of graft scandals that dragged in a cabinet minister and members of Yudhoyono's inner circle and which could come to court just as parties gear up for parliamentary elections in April.

It is not just parliament at stake.

Parties must win at least 20 per cent of the national vote, or 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, to nominate a candidate for July's presidential election. Judging by the most recent polls, Yudhoyono's party is unlikely to reach that threshold.

The party enjoyed 40 per cent of national support at its peak in 2010, but is projected to gain only 7 per cent of the vote in 2014, according to pollsters.

Nurhayati Assegaf, a senior member of the Democratic Party, acknowledged that corruption cases had hurt the party but said the president's leadership would help the party.

"We are determined to improve our image by showing our constituents all over Indonesia that we - Yudhoyono and the Democratic Party - we are successful leaders ... and we can defend the country when the need arises," Assegaf said. "What the president has done and said in response to the spying issue shows his effort in solving the problem."

Political analyst Kevin O'Rourke said the row with Australia was a "welcome distraction" for Yudhoyono, but it would only be temporary.

"When elections arrive, voters will be thinking about larger issues of governance and economic management, rather than tales of espionage and bilateral relations."

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