WASHINGTON – With Indonesia preparing for elections in the new year, one underdog candidate is promoting himself in the United States as a president who would crack down on Islamist extremists.
The United States has taken a growing interest in Indonesia, with President Barack Obama – who spent part of his childhood in Jakarta – seeing the world’s largest Muslim-majority country as a ideal partner due to its embrace of democracy and its historically moderate brand of Islam.
But wealthy businessman Hashim Djojohadikusumo, brother of candidate Prabowo Subianto, said that violence in recent years against Christian, Ahmadiyah and other minorities showed a “total failure” by outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration on ensuring religious tolerance.
“I would give them an F-minus grade,” Hashim told AFP during a recent visit to Washington to promote his brother.
Hashim said that Prabowo as president would enforce laws that protect religious freedom – a key foreign policy issue for many US lawmakers.
“The US government should be more active in voicing displeasure about the abdication of the Indonesian government in promoting minorities,” he said.
Hashim’s billing of his brother as a defender of minorities comes despite charges that Prabowo, then a military commander, led the torture of pro-democracy activists during the fall of strongman Suharto in the 1990s.
The United States has denied Prabowo a visa on human rights grounds.
Hashim argued that his brother was not alone in his military role. He also defended his brother’s populist economic platform, which includes charges that the banking sector is too open.
“Whether that’s considered nationalist, it’s certainly not considered xenophobic. We just want fairness,” Hashim said.
Prabowo, he said, supports foreign investment and “is not another Hugo Chavez,” the late leftist Venezuelan leader.
Strong ties seen whoever wins
None of the leading candidates in the July elections are considered close to Islamists or hostile toward the United States.
Joko Widodo, the laid-back mayor of Jakarta known for his love of heavy metal, is often considered the frontrunner. Other potential candidates include businessman Aburizal Bakrie and Dino Patti Djalal, who recently resigned as ambassador to the United States.
Hashim called for the United States to support election monitors, warning of a high potential for fraud.
A senior US official said that the United States was open to providing election support but added that problems during the last vote in 2009 were technical in nature and not seen as an effort to rig the outcome.
“Overall, I think we’re pretty bullish on Indonesian democracy,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The official said that the Obama administration – which has made growing ties to Asia a key priority – was neutral in the election and expected warm relations no matter who wins.
While the Obama administration has boosted defense ties that had been stalled on human rights concerns, the US official said that most areas of cooperation were in relatively uncontroversial areas such as the environment, health and education.
“Much of the stuff that we’re doing with Indonesia is not politically sensitive,” he said.
The official praised Indonesia for advising Arab Spring countries on their democratic transitions – “places where having an Indonesian face rather than a US face might be better” – and said that the United States may look to increase support for such training.
Despite the calm in relations with Washington, Indonesia is in the midst of one of the worst crises in years with Australia after American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden revealed that the US ally tried to bug the phones of Yudhoyono and his inner circle.