Australia/Israel Review

Asia Watch: Politics 2 – Sport 0

Aug 4, 2023 | Michael Shannon

Indonesian sports fans are suffering the consequences of political meddling (Image: Shutterstock)
Indonesian sports fans are suffering the consequences of political meddling (Image: Shutterstock)

It hasn’t been a great period for Indonesian sport, not just on the result sheets but also in terms of political meddling.

For a nation of over 275 million people, Indonesia underperforms on the world stage and even within its own region. At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, it came 59th in the medals tally. It came 10th in the 2018 Asian Games, despite being helped by the fact that it was the host. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia struggled and came third, behind Vietnam and Thailand, in this year’s South East Asian (SEA) Games in Cambodia. 

Fresh from losing the hosting rights to the FIFA U-20 football World Cup, Indonesia has also backed out of hosting the World Beach Games that were to take place in Bali in August, citing funding constraints – forcing organisers to cancel the event entirely. 

The political question dogging both events was the participation of Israel. The interventions of presidential candidate Ganjar Pranowo and Bali Governor I Wayan Koster against Israeli participation effectively torpedoed the FIFA tournament, while Koster’s ambiguous statements on the same issue in regard to the Beach Games created uncertainty as to whether they would go ahead. 

The official reason for the pull-out, according to Raja Sapta Oktohari, the chairman of the Indonesian Olympic Committee, was that the government budget approval process was too lengthy and complicated, leaving only 30 days before the event. He said the situation was worsened by some sponsors pulling out, which forced the committee to finance the preparatory activities by itself. Youth and Sports Minister Dito Ariotedjo said the Government could only afford to allocate Rp 446 billion (A$43.6 million) for the games, far below the Rp 1 trillion (A$97.8 million) proposed by the organising committee. 

Many are suspicious that the Israel issue was behind the cancellation of the World Beach Games as well, although the organisers deny this. Israel had qualified for two sports: swimming and 3×3 basketball, but basketball was later removed from the Bali games. According to the Indonesian Olympic Committee, the qualified Israeli athletes had not re-registered as required for the Bali event. 

Given the beach games were awarded in October 2021, Indonesia had almost two years to prepare the venues and secure the funding. The ignominious withdrawal displays a troubling lack of commitment to ensuring the beach games were a success. Indonesia has already submitted its bid to host the Olympics in 2036, and is considering a bid, individually or with neighbouring countries, to host the FIFA World Cup in 2034, but its prospects will now be severely compromised. 

The truism that ‘politics ruins everything’ applies here. Both events were undermined by the looming presidential elections and the shadow campaign that has been ongoing for more than a year. The Israel issue is a political hand grenade that was invoked by Ganjar and Wayan at the behest of their PDI-P party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri in an apparent attempt to ward off attacks from Islamic conservatives. 

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry was prepared to issue visas for the U-20 Israeli football team and its band of supporters, and Indonesia has hosted several international events where Israelis were present, including the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Bali last year. However, it appears that the football tournament and beach games were too visible not to be ensnared by politics – it seems no one running for office can take the risk of being perceived as endorsing visits by Israelis. 

Appearing increasingly desperate in her attempts to maintain political relevance, Megawati cynically invoked the legacy of her father Sukarno and five words in the preamble to the 1945 Constitution – “all colonialism must be abolished” – to justify her opposition to Israel participating in the FIFA U-20 tournament. Her enduring pre-eminence within her party ensured that Ganjar and Wayan were obliged to follow.

At any rate, Megawati’s gambit has backfired badly for her chosen presidential candidate Ganjar, who has now lost his frontrunner status largely because his public support for Megawati’s position not only angered millions of football fans but, crucially, painted him as a weak functionary who will unquestioningly do the bidding of an overbearing matriarch.

The beneficiary is Prabowo Subianto, leading in a recent Indikator Politik survey at 38%, with Ganjar at 34% and Anies Baswedan adrift and struggling to make headway at 19%. Sticking to his strategy of staying away from controversy, Prabowo did not join the clamour to exclude Israel. Beholden to no one, he has sat back, continued his role as defence minister and developed a good working relationship with President Joko Widodo.

While “Jokowi” is notionally aligned with Ganjar in the PDI-P, he has consistently refused to be subservient to a self-entitled party leader who never won an election in her own right, let alone two. While not backing Prabowo, Jokowi has conspicuously not opposed him either.

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