Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to consider moving his country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has had far-ranging political consequences beyond his nation’s borders, perhaps nowhere else more so than in Indonesia. Not only has it led to a major bilateral trade deal between our two countries being placed on hold, it has now become a major point of contention between candidates in Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election.
Yesterday, a group of protesters from the Indonesian Muslim League to Save Palestine (PLMI) held a demonstration in front of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. But instead of protesting the Australian government for considering the Jerusalem move, the main target of their outrage was presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto.
Specifically, the protesters were angered by statements made by Prabowo on Wednesday after the Indonesia Economic Forum in Jakarta, when he was asked his opinion on Australia’s plan to move their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“Regarding the transfer of the embassy, I have not read much about Australia’s decision to move their embassy to Jerusalem. We as supporters of Palestine, we certainly have our own opinions. But Australia is also an independent and sovereign country, so we must respect their sovereignty,” Prabowo said.
It may strike some as a relatively benign and reasonable statement to make, but it was very much in opposition to the position of President Joko Widodo’s administration (which, as mentioned before, has put a major bilateral trade deal on hold to pressure Australia to reconsider), not to mention the vast majority of Muslim Indonesians who are very much against any official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital due to its implications on Palestine (opposition which could clearly be seen here when US President Donald Trump decided to move the American Embassy in Israel there earlier this year).
Prabowo saying that Indonesia should respect Australia’s sovereignty is consistent with his own political philosophy towards Indonesia, with its emphasis on economic nationalism as a means of preventing the destructive influence of foreign powers. But consistent though it may be to Prabowo, there’s no doubt that it’s an extremely unpopular stance to take in Indonesia as illustrated by yesterday’s protest
In addition to signs with slogans such as “Reject the Australian Embassy being moved to Jerusalem” and “Palestine’s Freedom is not negotiable”, the protesters also carried signs criticizing presidential challenger Prabowo such as “Prabowo hurts Muslims”.
“Now we are gathering because the statements by the presidential candidate, who we were once proud of and who we once revered, still hurts our Muslim brothers in Palestine as he supports the [moving of the ] Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” PLMI coordinator Tengku Nazarulloh said during his speech at the protest as quoted by Detik.
“The statement by Prabowo Subianto has hurt our hearts and the hearts of all Muslims who are in Indonesia,” he continued.
Prabowo’s statement seems especially problematic for his campaign considering he is often considered the candidate of choice for hardline and ultra conservative Islamic factions such as the infamous Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which is officially supporting Prabowo in the 2019 race but has expressed their outrage over the possible embassy move.
Following Prabowo’s statement, officials from his campaign have attempted to clarify his views to make them more palatable, saying they do not reflect his views on Palestinian independence, which the former general fully supports.
That explanation may have satisfied some of Prabowo’s supporters but, as demonstrated by yesterday’s demo, many are still incensed by his non-interventionist stance on this issue.
It’s easy to see this controversy as the latest in a long line of major PR mistakes made by Prabowo and his struggling campaign following such disasters as the hoax perpetrated by his former campaigner, Ratna Sarumpaet, and his joke about “Boyolali looks” that went terribly wrong.
We have to admit, we kind of respect Prabowo for the position he has taken if only because it indicates he is more concerned with being consistent about his political philosophy than saying things he doesn’t believe in to score points with voters. But considering how far behind he is in most surveys (with Jokowi showing leads of around 15-20 percentage points in many) Prabowo is going to have to start getting a lot smarter about what he says if he’s going to have any chance at the polls in April.