Nothing ever seems settled in Indonesia, whether it is the potent landscape or society itself. Yet for all the economic, religious and environmental challenges the nation faces, the political process has been free of violence for the last decade, a real step forward considering the dark recent past. Home to Southeast Asia's biggest economy, Indonesia is a more outward-looking and confident country these days too, something exemplified by its desire to bid for the 2032 Olympics.
Jokowi & Beyond
The first democratically elected Indonesian president with no obvious ties to the old Suharto dictatorship or the military, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi (or simply Joko), carried the dreams of every Indonesian who wants a brighter future for his or her country when he was elected in 2014.
But Jokowi has not proved to be the radical leader some expected. He has been careful to avoid antagonising conservative Muslims, picking a senior cleric and Islamic scholar, Ma'ruf Amin, to be his running mate in the April 2019 election, as well as tacitly allowing Aceh and other conservative regions to become ever-more fundamentalist. Joko has been a vocal defender of Indonesia's use of the death penalty for narcotics offences too, a stance seen by many as an attempt to show the domestic audience that he is a strong leader. If Joko is to win a second term as president, he must balance the demands of the Islamic lobby with the desires of more progressive voters.
Yet Jokowi's first term in power has also been marked by Indonesia's increasing confidence on the world stage. Ties with China, Japan and other SE Asian nations have become closer, and even Indonesia's relationship with Australia appears more settled despite the outrage over the execution of two Australians for heroin smuggling in 2015. After Jakarta successfully staged the Asian Games in August 2018, Joko announced that Indonesia would bid to host the 2032 Olympics.
Domestically, Joko has recognised the need to address the huge environmental challenges Indonesia faces. In September 2018, Indonesia announced a three-year moratorium on new palm-oil plantations, and a plan to review existing ones, a step that might halt the rampant deforestation of parts of the archipelago.
A Slowing Economy
Jokowi came to power promising economic growth of 7% a year, a target that needs to be reached if Indonesia's young and expanding population – there are around 80 million millennials in the country – are to find work. But since 2015 the economy has being growing at around 5% a year, a figure matched by the percentage of Indonesians who are unemployed. A weakening currency and a decline in exports, along with sluggish consumer spending, continues to slow the economy.
The growing trade war between the US and China is expected to reduce demand in China for the raw materials it imports from Indonesia. And the EU's plans to phase out the use of palm oil in transport fuels by 2030 will also hit Indonesia hard as it accounts for over half of the world's palm-oil production. State subsidies that keep the price of fuel and electricity low drain money from the government's budget. On the plus side, tax revenues are rising following a crackdown on corporate tax avoidance.
Above all, Indonesia remains a desperately unequal country with 1% of the population owning 49% of the wealth. And despite the huge gains made in reducing poverty since 2000, over 10% of Indonesians still live below the poverty line, according to 2017 government figures. One feature of Jokowi's time in power has been the rise in the number of protests by workers demanding higher wages. Maintaining the economic progress made in the last two decades is by far the biggest challenge he and his government face.
Natural & Unnatural Disasters
As the site of the modern world's greatest explosion (Gunung Tambora in 1815) and other cataclysms such as the tsunami of 2004, Indonesia experiences more than its fair share of natural disasters. In September 2018, 2100 people were killed and over 10,000 injured when an earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck central Sulawesi, while almost 600 people died in a series of earthquakes in Lombok in July and August 2018. Indonesia's location along the 'Ring of Fire' in the basin of the Pacific Ocean makes it susceptible to both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but the country is generally safe to visit.
In unnatural disasters, an unlicensed ferry sank on Lake Toba in Sumatra in June 2018, with over 160 people losing their lives. That was followed in October 2018 by a Lion Air flight crashing into the sea off Jakarta shortly after takeoff, resulting in the death of all 189 passengers. The nation's dismal record for transport safety, which has been blamed on lax oversight and institutional malaise on the part of the airlines and boat operators, seems intractable.
If Indonesia's safety record is clouded, then its skies are clearer than before. Forest fires from (technically) illegal forest clearances on Sumatra and Kalimantan cause an annual acidic haze that blots out the sky over much of western Indonesia. But since the catastrophic fires of 2015, when much of Southeast Asia was affected by the haze, Indonesia has begun to cooperate with neighbouring countries to seed clouds and improve its fire-fighting techniques. The fact that Jakarta hosted the Asian Games in August 2018 provided a further incentive to do more to cut the air pollution. But whether the three-year moratorium on new palm-oil plantations announced in September 2018 will reduce the number of blazes remains to be seen.
Where to for Tourism?
Tourism and travel accounts for over 5% of Indonesia's GDP. It's a vital source of foreign income and investment, especially in Bali. The Indonesian government wants to develop the sector further and has plans to attract foreign investment and develop 'new Balis' in places such as Nusa Tenggara, Thousand Islands off Java, Danau Toba in Sumatra, and parts of Sulawesi and Maluku. One obvious roadblock is infrastructure. Bali is already approaching saturation point with around six million foreign visitors in 2018. Some A$3 billion has been earmarked for the development of the Mandalika project on the island of Lombok, and in the past decade the government has poured big money into new or redeveloped airports at Bali, Balikpapan in Kalimantan, and Medan, Padang, Nias and Pulau Weh (all in Sumatra). But with Indonesia hoping to attract 20 million tourists a year by 2019, more needs to be done if the country is to cope effectively with the added visitor numbers.
Another sticking point is the conservative nature of Indonesia. Bali is Bali partly because of its Hindu majority: other parts of Indonesia might struggle to embrace the openness and hedonism that has made Bali so attractive to foreign tourists.