In The News

Indonesia responds to Obama Victory

November 5, 2008

The mood on the street in Indonesia is probably more jubilant in many ways than in some parts of the U.S., with the news of the victory of Barack Obama as President-elect of the United States. Indonesians have long been overwhelming supporters of Obama.They say they feel a personal connection because Obama’s stepfather was Indonesian and Obama lived in Jakarta when he was a child. People here from all walks of life know about Obama — and today they say they feel pride that “their guy” is now in the White House. In fact, one of the jokes going around Jakarta today is that, “Obama was able to win against all odds after only spending 4 years in Indonesia — imagine what he could have done if he had spent his whole life here.”

Parties and celebrations were held across the city of Jakarta today — the largest among them was a public celebration held at a large mall in downtown Jakarta. Indonesia’s best rock and folks singers came out to perform, 3,000 balloons were dropped from the rafters, and people celebrated heartily.

So now that “their guy” won, what do Indonesians expect from an Obama presidency? Among many, there is an expectation and hope that an Obama presidency will mean a warmer and closer relationship with the U.S.  For some, that hope means stronger trade relations and more foreign investment ” and indeed stocks on the Indonesian Stock Exchange were up by 2.5% today only two hours after the news of Obama’s win. For others, it means the hope that President Obama will visit Indonesia early in his term and that Indonesia will be able to play a larger role on the international stage. For others, the expectation is that the U.S. will have a more nuanced approach to the Muslim world. But what one hears the most is a  vaguely expressed but sincerely felt  hope that this man with a multi-racial background and an Indonesia connection will be able to understand and relate to the international community in a way that his predecessor did not, and that that will bring improvements in relations not only with Indonesia, but also on some of the global issues that impact Indonesia.

The danger is that Indonesians have overly high expectations of the change that will come about with an Obama presidency. It is likely, in fact, that foreign policy related to Indonesia under Obama will not change that dramatically– and in fact, with the exception of tensions related to ‘War on Terror’ policies, Indonesia and the U.S. enjoyed a good bilateral relationship under the Bush administration.  Bush significantly increased the development assistance budget for Indonesia, and trade and security cooperation were strong.  The substance of this relationship is not likely to change.

With regard to relations between the US and the Muslim world under an Obama presidency, it is also likely that there will not be a dramatic substantive difference, except there is a strong sense that this is a president who does not see things in terms of black and white. He will have the same constraints and political commitments that the U.S. president always does vis á  vis policy in the Middle East and the relationship with Israel — but same say what he will bring to these challenges is an understanding of complexity. For Indonesia, that is a  good thing, because Islam in Indonesia is characterized by complexity, so there may be higher levels of understanding between the two countries as a result of his election.

Whatever the reason, Indonesians from all walks of life, and much of the international community, are celebrating in Jakarta today.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Jakarta, Indonesia. She can be reached at rbush@tafindo.org.

View all posts by Robin Bush

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