Britain no longer Europe's go-to power; Jokowi set for a landslide but remains a mystery; Japan PM shores up support of national broadcaster. By Hamish McDonald.

Wilting Britain fast becoming a global wallflower

Former Kopassus general Prabowo Subianto attends a mass rally in a Jakarta football stadium last Sunday.
Credit: AFP

Recalling the “tropical knights” of the Bjelke-Petersen era and other instances of colonial pretension, let’s hope that Quentin Bryce and Peter Cosgrove have the good sense to decline the titles Tony Abbott is bestowing, or at least not use them. 

The “Anglosphere” beloved of our prime minister  is actually not so full of bounce at the moment. Here in Washington, the faithful British ally is shrinking into the background. The Brits are out of fashion after cutting their army to 80,000 soldiers, having no aircraft carriers in service for a few years, the City of London a bolthole for Russian oligarchs, and playing around with dangerous referendums on Scottish independence and European Union membership.

Thanks to Edward Snowden’s leaks, the Five Eyes intelligence pact of the English-speaking countries is a current political embarrassment. Not to mention Tony Blair looking rather too keen on making money.

Germany is the go-to power in Europe, and Japan the one in Asia. Rather ironic, for those of us raised closer to World War II. 

1 . Despite posturing rival, Jokowi looks set for landslide

Less than two weeks from now, the results will be in from Indonesia’s elections for a new parliament, the fourth free elections since Suharto’s New Order system collapsed. 

At that point the political landscape for the remainder of the decade will start to come into focus. The April 9 election result determines which parties, or coalitions, can put up candidates for the presidential election three months later, on July 9. Only blocks with 20 per cent of the seats in parliament, or 25 per cent of the popular vote, can make nominations. 

With former president Megawati Sukarnoputri finally anointing the wildly popular governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), as the candidate of her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, it already looks like a sweep for him, barring unfortunate accidents. However, the candidate running second in the polls, the former Kopassus (Special Forces) general and one-time Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, is not taking it lying down. 

This was all too apparent last Sunday, when Prabowo left his heavily fortified estate on the fringes of the capital for a mass rally of his Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) in a Jakarta football stadium. Prabowo, who claims descent from the great Sultan Agung of the Javanese kingdom of Mataram, arrived by helicopter, dressed in a white shirt, with a red sash and knee-high riding boots, then pranced around the field on a horse in front of ranks of sturdy young men also in white-and-red uniform. To many it recalled the posturing of Mussolini. 

In a speech declaring Indonesia to be ruled by the “kleptocracy” and vowing to stop the sale of his country to foreigners, Prabowo soon got on to what he sees as Jokowi’s perfidy – not staying in the Jakarta job where Prabowo’s party had installed him in 2012. Breaking into a Malay poetic style, he said:  “You can lie as long as you do it politely/ You can cheat as long as you do it politely/ You can be corrupt as long as you do it politely/ You can break your promises as long as you do it politely/ You can sell this country as long as you do it politely.” 

Coincidentally, and of course spontaneously, citizens have taken to picketing city hall with signs saying Jokowi bohong (Jokowi is a liar) for not serving out his term as city governor. As this column has previously mentioned, Jokowi’s bodyguard has been increased; now we learn that food-tasters have been employed. 

Prabowo’s rally was also notable for attendance by leaders of the opportunistic Muslim-based Development Unity Party. Analysts see Prabowo preparing to ally with Islamic parties to counter Jokowi’s secular Sukarnoism. This might mean ditching years of PR to show Prabowo is a changed man from the Suharto loyalist who whipped up Islamic sentiment and scapegoated the mostly Christian ethnic Chinese community to try to save his then father-in-law in 1997-98. But as they say in NSW, whatever it takes … 

2 . … but he remains a mystery offshore

Assuming that Jokowi makes it through to the presidency, either in July’s vote or a run-off in September, he will arrive as a mystery man for his foreign counterparts, not least Tony Abbott, who has declared Indonesia to be Australia’s “most important” relationship. 

So far, Jokowi’s political concerns have been municipal rather than national. Diplomats who’ve talked to him remain baffled about his wider outlook. Part of his appeal to Indonesian voters, of course, is that he doesn’t look like a politician. He has been decisive and realistic in tackling the urban nightmare of Jakarta, but he will have little control over his party’s members in the casino-like parliament, who are likely to remain under Megawati’s thrall for some time. 

Hard decisions, notably cutting the ballooning fuel subsidies chewing up a major portion of government revenue, will be a surprise. More predictable, on Megawati’s past record, is a tougher line on unrest in the two Papuan provinces, and more efforts to divide and rule.

3 . Japan PM shores up NHK support

Indonesia might be most important, but Japan is Australia’s “best friend” in Asia, according to Abbott. 

Far better, most diplomats think, is the Washington formula that “America has no better friend than [choose from drop-down menu]”. But the friendship is quite personal, with Abbott and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe developing a rare rapport.

Let’s hope Abbott doesn’t borrow too many ideas on his visit to Tokyo next month. Whitewashing school history books has already been left to Education Minister Christopher Pyne, but Abbott will be keenly interested in Abe’s recent installation of a like-minded chairman, Katsuto Momii, and several other board members at the national broadcaster, NHK. 

Momii promptly declared the wartime “comfort women” issue of forced prostitution for the imperial army as no worse morally than Amsterdam’s red light area De Wallen, and said NHK’s news mission should be to support government policies. Coalition backbenchers would applaud such sentiments.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "Wilting Britain fast becoming a wallflower".

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Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.  

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