World

Joko Widodo re-elected. The Pacific waits for climate change action. US states line up to restrict abortion. Taiwan’s advance on gay rights. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Returned Joko eyes infrastructure plan

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Indonesia: At 1.46am on Tuesday, Indonesia’s heavily guarded electoral commission announced that President Joko Widodo had secured re-election with 55.5 per cent of the vote, compared with 44.5 per cent for Prabowo Subianto, a former army general and businessman.

The announcement was made a day earlier than scheduled, at an unusual hour, in an attempt to avoid violent protests by supporters of Prabowo, who is refusing to accept the results, just as he did following the 2014 election. On Tuesday and Wednesday, street protests in Jakarta ended with six people dead and 200 injured.

Prabowo likely does not expect to overturn the result. He may instead be trying to improve his bargaining position to seek a senior appointment or other concessions. Even if some fraud and cheating claims are correct, they could hardly account for Widodo’s massive winning margin of 17 million votes.

So, Widodo’s victory is assured. But the excitement that surrounded his win in 2014 – as the first president to emerge from outside the nation’s political and military elite – has largely subsided. In the past five years, Widodo has pandered to Islamists, used the security forces for political purposes and overseen a decline in minority rights.

Yet his main preoccupation appears to be a genuine determination to carry out his ambitious $US400 billion plan to improve the nation’s ailing and absent infrastructure. This will be crucial if Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, hopes to rise, as expected, to become the fourth-largest economy by 2030. This growth would render Indonesia a significant Asian power, one potentially strong and confident enough to check any southern overreach by China or others. But, to advance, Indonesia will need to overcome its corrosive politics.

When calm returns to Jakarta, Widodo’s next step will be to form a ruling coalition. This will involve inevitable tradeoffs and compromises that, in turn, will determine the fate of his proposed trains, highways, ports, dams and airports, and, ultimately, his country’s status in Asia.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Fiji: Three days before Australia’s election, Samoa’s prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele, gave an unusually candid indication of his preferred result.

Asked about the Australian election at a meeting of Pacific leaders in Fiji to discuss global warming, Sailele appeared to hope for change. “Let us keep our fingers crossed,” he said.

Moments earlier, the Pacific Islands Forum leaders had released a statement that called for urgent climate change action from “all countries, with no caveats”.

“If we do not, we will lose,” the statement said. “We will lose our homes, our ways of life, our wellbeing and our livelihoods. We know this because we are experiencing loss already.”

Australia is a member of the forum but was represented by an official at the meeting because the government was in caretaker mode ahead of the election. But leaders across the Pacific were closely watching the Australian election and have repeatedly criticised the Coalition for its inaction on climate change.

Scott Morrison visited Fiji and Vanuatu earlier this year to shore up ties as part of his so-called “Pacific pivot”, aimed at delivering a much-needed boost to relations with Australia’s island neighbours. This attention to the Pacific, albeit motivated by concerns about China’s rising influence, has been welcomed. But the concern among Australia’s neighbours about the Coalition’s climate indifference is genuine, and risks undermining efforts to agree on areas that concern them less, such as China.

On Tuesday, Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, wrote a warm congratulations to Scott Morrison on Facebook, saying Morrison had ushered in a “newfound closeness” between the two countries.

“Let us take the same underdog attitude that inspired your parliamentary victory to the global fight against climate change,” Bainimarama wrote. “By working closely together, we can turn the tides in this battle – the most urgent crisis facing not only the Pacific, but the world.”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

United States: Alabama’s house of representatives has 105 seats, but 59 of those were not contested at last year’s state election. These uncompetitive seats were the result of rampant gerrymandering, which has carved up the electoral map to strongly favour the Republicans and to pack Democrat voters into a small number of districts. Of the 28 seats held by the Democrats, just seven were contested. This manipulation of voting processes not only makes it difficult for the Democrats to gain power but enables Republicans to govern and implement policy without fear of electoral consequences.

On May 14, Alabama passed America’s harshest abortion laws. The bill bans all abortions, including for cases of rape and incest, and imposes 99-year jail terms for doctors who perform them, a far longer sentence than for rapists. This follows a series of anti-abortion moves by other, mostly southern states, including Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia.

An expert on American gerrymandering, Simon Jackman, head of the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University, said Alabama has long been “ground zero” for both manipulating electoral processes and defying views deemed to be imposed by northerners. This includes its resistance to civil rights and desegregation laws in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Most states of the deep south have legislatures that are drawn to favour Republicans,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“It creates a buffer for Republicans to enact policies that may be out of step with what the majority of their state, let alone Americans, want. They are electorally insulated from a political backlash.”

The anti-abortion laws, which are deliberately provocative and almost certainly unconstitutional, are designed to trigger lawsuits by pro-choice advocates. This could then lead to a Supreme Court case to test the validity of Roe v Wade, the 1973 case that legalised abortion. Donald Trump’s two judicial appointments have left the nine-member court with five anti-abortion judges.

Jackman says the flurry of state abortion bans will force the court to hear a case soon. The fate of Roe v Wade, which is supported by two-thirds of Americans, probably depends on the court’s chief justice, John Roberts, who may try to overcome his anti-abortion sentiment to find a compromise that will preserve the court’s reputation.

SPOTLIGHT: MARRIAGE LAWS

Taiwan: Two years ago, Taiwan’s highest court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage had “no rational basis” and ordered parliament to legalise it. Earlier this month, the parliament finally did so, in a 66-27 vote, making Taiwan the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

This was an advance, of sorts – particularly in comparison with other Asian nations – though it was not complete marriage equality. The recognition occurs in a new bill, but the existing definition of marriage in the civil law remains unchanged. Also, queer Taiwanese will not be allowed to wed foreigners from countries where same-sex marriage is illegal, and same-sex couples will only be allowed to adopt children who are biologically related to one of them.

But the law has prompted hope that it may encourage further change across Asia, which has an appalling record on LGBTQIA rights. In China, gay sex was only legalised in 1997, and in India last year; it is illegal in Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Indonesia.

A Taiwanese marriage equality campaigner, Jennifer Lu, said the new law would help to combat perceptions in the region that LGBTQIA rights are inconsistent with traditional Asian cultures and values. Opponents, she noted, often blame “cultural colonisation” and Western propaganda.

“The [statute] sends an important message to the world: that the LGBTQ+ community is not intruding into Asian cultures,” she wrote this week in The Washington Post.

“In the end, this hard-fought victory marks a new page in Taiwanese history – at least for the moment.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Returned Joko eyes infrastructure plan". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.