Political parties in Indonesia are exploiting the Australian spying scandal to win over voters, Isabel Esterman (Flickr)
American whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, revealed that Australian intelligence agencies had been tapping the phones of Indonesia’s president, the first lady and a slew of high-level cabinet minister. The incident, which had occurred four years earlier – and politicians reactions to it – was front-page news in both countries.
When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa demanded an apology from Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott issued a statement of ‘regret’ of any embarrassment caused to Indonesia but stopped short of an official apology. His reasoning: that phone-tapping was standard intelligence procedure, and that any apology would be insincere. Unconvinced, Indonesia withdrew its ambassador to Australia, temporarily halted military ties and suspended cooperation on people smuggling issues.
Media commentary has focused mainly on the political tit-for-tat between Jakarta and Canberra. But there’s another whole layer to this dispute. Indonesia is due to hold national elections in 2014, and candidates are falling over each other to demonstrate their nationalist credentials. The Australian spy scandal provided a perfect opportunity for these parties to blast Australia and Yudhoyono in one fell swoop, whilst also airing their own opinions on the damage done to Indonesia’s reputation – a reputation that must, of course, be maintained at all costs.
Making the most of a bad situation?
Far from keeping the phone-tapping incident under wraps, the Indonesian government decided to milk it for all it was worth. Not only Marty Natalegawa gave numerous media interviews on the issue, but Yudhoyono himself took to twitter to condemn Abbott.
Such an open and forceful airing of opinions on the Australian government’s handling of the affair seemed out of character for Yudhoyono, who had often been critiqued in the past for his reluctance to speak out about difficult issues. However, given the sensitivity that Yudhoyono has demonstrated in when personally affronted or when his family has been criticised, the reaction does seem more typical.
Also, given the nature in which the information was revealed, it was impossible for Yudhoyono not to respond in this way. And with the pressure to respond also came the opportunity to benefit. Arguments that Indonesia’s sovereignty had been violated, outrage that the first lady – who does not herself hold political office – had been spied upon, and claims that Indonesia would never themselves engage in eavesdropping gave Yudhoyono the moral authority to put Australia firmly on the spot.
Indonesia did not just press for an apology; the incident provided leverage for other requests that are perhaps not immediately apparent. The temporary cessation of military ties and of Indonesia’s agreement to accept asylum seeker boats turned back by Australian maritime vessels put the responsibility to compensate Indonesia for the loss of trust firmly in the hands of the Australian government. It also provided Yudhoyono with a much-needed opportunity to appear tough on something, with little potential for domestic backlash.
Plenty of room on the bandwagon
Yudhoyono and his cabinet are far from the only ones to be taking advantage of the situation. Those within opposition parties have taken different tacks in their approach to the scandal, reflecting the individualistic nature of campaigning for office in Indonesia, where candidates are generally responsible for building their own public profile. But, overall, the responses fell largely into two camps: those criticising Yudhoyono for over-reacting and those criticising his delayed/inadequate response. For both camps, it’s not necessarily Tony Abbott (or Australia) that is the prime target; it’s the president himself.
2014 presidential hopeful, Prabowo Subianto, from Gerindra, led the charge against Yudhoyono’s over-reaction. He claimed that spying on government officials is commonplace and that the responsibility lies with government officials not to say anything important over the phone. In a curious twist on the issue, Prabowo levelled criticism at the government for not only making a fuss, but also for jeopardising the national interest through their indiscretion. To paraphrase one of his public statements: Yudhoyono needed to apologise to the Indonesian people for not guarding Indonesia's secrets more carefully, and Australia can't be blamed for its actions because if someone steals something from you, it's your fault for not looking after it more carefully.
The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) and the National Democratic Party (Nasdem) have all condemned the government for not acting forcefully enough. PDI-P claimed that Yudhoyono’s actions do not go far enough, urging that the Australian ambassador to Indonesia be thrown out. Nasdem issued a statement soon after the Indonesian ambassador to Australia was recalled, stating that it was too little too late. It also accused Australia of maintaining an unbalanced power relationship with Indonesia, particularly in pressuring the government to assist with its ‘stop the boats’ policy. Hanura, which is led by former General Wiranto, also called on the government to stop all cooperation on people smuggling activities, stating that Indonesia has much to gain from making it easier for asylum seekers to get to Australia. One Hanura MP not only said that the asylum seeker issue could be useful leverage for demanding an apology from Abbott, but accused Australia of using asylum seekers to gather intelligence in Indonesia.
The general consensus (apart from Prabowo), meanwhile, is that spying on the President is unacceptable and the situation warrants the use of all influence possible to elicit an apology. Opposition parties are aware of Australia’s interest in ensuring close bilateral ties with the country and have no qualms about using to improve their own political standing. Being able to invoke a foreign threat while also criticising a domestic political opponent is like hitting the political campaign jackpot. The opposition have nothing to lose and everything to gain from jumping on the bandwagon and riding it for as long as they possibly can.
Elisabeth Kramer (email@example.com) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the political discourse of anti-corruption amongst emerging parties in the lead up to the 2014 Indonesian national legislative elections.