Israel and Hamas reject ceasefire proposals. Outrage over Yang Hengjun death sentence. Imran Khan’s absence taints Pakistan elections. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Prabowo poised for victory despite human rights queries

A man in stands through the sunroof of a car, overlooking a crowd that's reaching out to him.
Prabowo Subianto, who is widely expected to win the Indonesian presidential election on Wednesday, at a campaign rally in Denpasar, Bali, this week.
Credit: EPA / Made Nagi

Great power rivalry

Gaza: Israel and Hamas this week rejected each other’s proposals for a ceasefire in Gaza, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory was “within reach” and refused an offer to withdraw troops in return for the release of hostages.

On Tuesday, Qatar confirmed Hamas had presented its terms for a ceasefire. The three-phase proposal involved a 135-day truce, during which Hamas would release Israeli hostages – first women, children and the elderly, then men, then bodies – and Israel would release Palestinian prisoners and withdraw from Gaza.

The Hamas offer was a response to an Israeli proposal for a six-week ceasefire involving the release of the remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza and of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected the Hamas proposal as “ludicrous”, saying Israel would achieve victory within months and would not allow the Iran-backed group to remain in control of Gaza. “If Hamas will survive in Gaza, it’s only a question of time until the next massacre,” he said.

But United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was visiting Israel during a regional tour this week, signalled a deal was still possible and the Hamas offer was an opportunity for negotiations. “While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached,” he said.

Israel said this week its military focus in Gaza was shifting to Rafah, a city in the south housing about half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people.

Aid groups said conditions in Gaza were worsening due to shortages of food, medicine and water and that fighting in the south would add to the risk of famine and disease.

Ahmed Ismail Musa, a 27-year-old Gaza resident who has fled to Rafah, told The Washington Post this week: “We live in the most crowded area. Our [evacuation] options will be non-existent.”

Israel vowed to topple Hamas after it entered Israel on October 7 and killed almost 1200 people and took about 240 hostages. As of Wednesday, Israel’s attacks in Gaza had killed 27,585 people, including about 11,500 children, according to local officials. Israel said it had killed more than 10,000 militants. Of the remaining 136 Israeli hostages in Gaza, about 30 are believed to have died.

Tensions have risen in the Middle East as Iran-backed groups launched attacks on Israel and the US. The Houthis, an Iran-backed group in Yemen, on Tuesday launched further missile strikes at commercial ships in the Red Sea.

The US attacked an Iran-backed group in Iraq on Wednesday, following air strikes last week that targeted 85 sites in Iraq and Syria linked to the Iranian military and to Iran-backed militants. The US said it was responding to a drone strike by an Iraq-based group that killed three American soldiers in Jordan. Biden said the US would respond “at times and places of our choosing” but wanted to avoid a war in the Middle East.

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: Prabowo Subianto, a controversial former Indonesian general, remains the frontrunner to become the country’s next president ahead of elections on Wednesday to replace outgoing leader Joko Widodo.

Polls suggest Prabowo, Indonesia’s defence minister, will defeat his two rivals, former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo, and could secure the 50 per cent of votes needed to avoid a run-off ballot in June.

Prabowo, a former special forces commander who lost against Widodo in 2014 and 2019, has promised to provide stability and to continue Widodo’s development and infrastructure plans, including an ambitious project to move the capital from Jakarta to Borneo. The 72-year-old is known for his temper but has tried to present himself in the campaign as a smiling, dancing and approachable – but firm – grandfather figure.

An expert on Indonesian politics, Marcus Mietzner, of the Australian National University, told The Saturday Paper a Prabowo victory appeared certain, even if the vote went to a second round. He said Prabowo, like Widodo, who is popularly known as Jokowi, would rely on a large coalition and had proposed populist spending programs, such as a US$30 billion plan for free school lunches.

“He will want to put his own stamp on the presidency, and therefore he has proposed massive projects not undertaken by Jokowi,” he said. “[This] will create the need to cut programs favoured by Jokowi, and tensions with his predecessor are thus highly likely. Indeed, growing tensions between Prabowo and Jokowi are set to become the dominant political theme of a Prabowo presidency.”

Prabowo has long been accused of human rights abuses in Timor-Leste and West Papua and of kidnappings of pro-democracy activists in the 1990s – accusations he has denied. Widodo is retiring due to Indonesia’s two-term limit.

About 205 million people are eligible to vote. A poll aggregator run by The Economist this week suggested Prabowo would receive 53 per cent of the vote, and Anies and Ganjar would receive 20 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively.

Democracy in retreat

China: Australia expressed outrage this week after pro-democracy activist Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-born Australian, was sentenced to death in Beijing – a move that threatened to upend recent efforts to improve ties between the two countries.

The decision by the Beijing court came as a shock to Canberra, which had been buoyed by the release last October of Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist who was detained for three years. Yang’s death sentence was suspended for two years as long as he does not commit any offences.

On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese condemned the “harsh” sentence, noting Yang’s ill health. Yang’s family fears he may die in jail. “We have conveyed, firstly, to China our dismay, our despair, our frustration, but to put it really simply, our outrage at this verdict,” Albanese told reporters.

Yang, who previously worked for Chinese state security and has a PhD from University of Technology Sydney, was detained on espionage charges after arriving in Guangzhou from New York in 2019. Feng Chongyi, a China expert who supervised Yang’s thesis, said he believed Yang was being punished for his criticism of Chinese human rights abuses.

Albanese and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong have raised concerns about Yang’s treatment during meetings with Chinese counterparts, even as ties between the countries appeared to improve.

In the past 18 months, Beijing has dropped most of its trade sanctions and resumed high-level meetings with Canberra.

But the severity of Yang’s sentence dampened hopes of a further improvement in relations. On Monday, Australia summoned China’s ambassador, Xiao Qian, who met for 20 minutes with Jan Adams, the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Albanese would not say this week whether he would proceed with an invitation for Chinese Premier Li Qiang to visit Australia later this year, although the trip is expected to go ahead.

Spotlight: Pakistan elections

Pakistan held elections this week that pitted candidates from two of the country’s elite political dynasties against each other, but the contest was overshadowed by the noticeable absence of Imran Khan.

Khan, the deposed former leader, last week received prison sentences in three separate cases. The sentences, amounting to more than 20 years, involved charges he leaked classified documents, kept or sold gifts received in office, and that his marriage to his wife, Bushra Bibi, a spiritual healer, was un-Islamic and illegal.

Khan, a former international cricketer, was elected prime minister in 2018 but was removed from power in a no-confidence vote in 2022 after losing the backing of the military. He was later barred from running for five years.

The main contenders at the election on Thursday were Nawaz Sharif, the 74-year-old former prime minister who was removed during his last term in office in 2017 and later sentenced on corruption charges, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old son of former leader Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.

No prime minister in Pakistan has ever finished a five-year term.

The election came as Pakistan faces an economic crisis, including an annual inflation rate of about 30 per cent. Almost 40 per cent of the country’s 248 million people live in poverty.

Rabiya Arooj, a 22-year-old who lives in Islamabad, told CNN this week: “Our institutions are not working, the people responsible are not working for us, there is no freedom of speech. We are very distressed.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Prabowo poised for victory despite human rights queries".

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