Are We More Palistinian Than The Palistinians?

Commentary by Wayne Forrest

Indonesia doesn’t usually receive worldwide press attention for its accomplishments and reforms. Rather, it takes something bad like a disaster or cultural anomaly for Indonesia to get a lot of ink. So the world doesn’t hear stories such as Ford and Vale have combined forces to build a $4.5 billion electric battery facility in Indonesia; or the leaves from one of its naturally growing trees (kratom) is helping Americans withdraw from their opioid addiction. Instead, the wires have been alive with the story that after courting the World Cup Under 20 event, and agreeing to all of the international soccer governing body’s (FIFA) requirements, Indonesia suddenly turned against the event in March because it would have required them to allow a team from Israel to compete. Bali’s Governor Wayang Koster came out against the Israelis one week before FIFA had scheduled a high-profile drawing for first round matches. In quick succession other Indonesian politicians, including the Ganjar Pranowo, the governor of Central Java, chimed in, hoping FIFA would cancel Israel’s participation, or, schedule their matches in nearby Singapore. Along with President Jokowi Koster and Pranowo are from the PDI-P, chaired by former President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

A certain amount of anti-Israel sentiment always exists in a majority Muslim country such as Indonesia because of the Palestinian issue. But what was fascinating here was that Koster represents Hindu Bali, and Pranowo, moderate/tolerant central Java. They were not who would be expected to voice opposition to Israel. That task usually falls to the leaders of conservative regions such as West Java, or organizations such as Muhammadiyah or the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). These groups eventually joined the chorus but did not lead it. And although PDI-P has a strong nationalist and anti-Israel streak the dates to its founder, Soekarno, who considered the founding of Israel a colonialist enterprise, they have said nothing when Israeli athletes or diplomats participated in other recent competitions and meetings in Indonesia. In fact, the Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia was so comfortable with Indonesia’s support for a Palestinian state, he said he had no objection to the Israeli team. Underlining his viewpoint was the statement by former Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the US, Dino Djalal, who said “Everything happened without the slightest change in Indonesia’s firm position supporting the struggle for Palestinian independence. Our attitude to the U-20 is too far politicized, even though the Palestinian Government itself does not oppose Israel’s presence at the U-20 in Indonesia. Are we more Palestinian than the Palestinians?”

So, what’s going on. The answer is twofold, in my view: the upcoming 2024 national and Presidential elections, and the factionalism within Indonesia’s largest political party, PDI-P. Indonesia’s President, Joko Widodo, is finishing his final 5-year term. Although he has been the PDI-P’s standard bearer for 15 years (first as a major, then governor, and finally President) he is not a central party leader. That position is held by Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s first President, who chairs it, and a dedicated group of supporters that surrounds her and they don’t necessary trust a leader such as Jokowi who easily cuts deals with other parties and often stands above politics. PDI-P does not host a nominating convention; only Megawati can choose PDI-P’s candidate. Furthermore, given Indonesia’s election laws, only a party with more than 20% of seats in Parliament, can choose a candidate itself. PDI-P is the only party able to do this. It has been quite clear for many months that Megawati would like to see her daughter Puan Maharani as PDI-P’s candidate and although Jokowi has not explicitly endorsed any candidates, many interpret his appearances and some of his statements as a preference for Ganjar Pranowo. Using her deputies, she has embarrassed President Jokowi, who favors Israel’s participation and is basically telling him to stay out of all decision-making regarding Indonesia’s next President. Furthermore, she is reminding figures such as Pranowo of their loyalty to her and the party. Megawati has not made public her views on the FIFA World Cup public. She left that to PDI-P’s secretary-general, Hasto Kristiyanto who said “This is not about religion, this is about independence as the right of all nations,” he told a CNN Indonesia talk show on Tuesday. The PDI-P members, including Koster and Ganjar, had “ideological” and “historical” awareness about Palestine, he said. “This is even more clear after looking at various documents from the Asia-Africa Conference that supported the independence of Palestine.”

According to the Jakarta Post: “Speculation is rife that Megawati is testing the loyalty of not just Ganjar, but also other potential election contenders, including State-Owned Enterprises Minister Erick Thohir, whose popularity as a potential vice-presidential candidate soared after being elected chairman of the Soccer Association of Indonesia (PSSI) in February. While Ganjar has toed the party line over the U-20 issue, Jokowi has clearly broken ranks with his party by insisting that Indonesia should hold the U-20 with or without Israeli participation. “I can assure you that Israel’s participation [will not change] our foreign policy stance toward Palestine, since our support for Palestine has always been solid and strong,” the President said. “But concerning the U-20 World Cup, [the government] agrees with the Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia, that FIFA has its rules, which its members must obey. So don’t mix up sports and politics.”

I think there is a strong possibility that this incident will just be a blip on the screen or an inconsequential move on Indonesia’s three dimensional political chessboard. Ganjar Pranowo may regret having to speak out about something as popular as Indonesian soccer. He will take his lumps now, as can be noticed in a recent poll in which he fell behind a rival Prabowo, but by February 2024 he could still end up as someone’s Presidential candidate, even PDI-P’s. The polls will soon tell us more. (See story on page 3)The big losers here are Indonesian sports; its travel ecosystem and the hundreds of millions of dollars lost; as well as its reputation for tolerance. Can Indonesia be trusted going forward to host any world class competition such as the World Cup, or even the Olympics? For that loss, surely PDI-P and its leaders need to be held accountable.

(These comments are the author’s only and may not reflect those of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce or its members)