Soft power through major events has been a hallmark of President Widodo’s foreign policy. Since taking office in 2014, he has dragged the historically introverted Indonesia onto the international stage, hosting the Asian Games in 2018 and the G20 and MotoGP in 2022.
The G20 was particularly successful. It allowed Indonesia to promote its plan for a new capital city to the world and secure US $8 billion in new investments from G20 events. Widodo’s commitment to consensus and consultation also won him praise as a global statesman at a time when global tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatened to overshadow the event.
However, Indonesia’s ‘golden age’ of soft power hit a snag last month when the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) replaced Indonesia as host of the 2023 Under-20 World Cup. Fifa did not directly explain their decision but the timing of the announcement suggests the change was made after Wayan Koster, the governor of Bali, refused to host the Israeli football team for a fixtured match in Bali.
Koster’s comments came after Ganjar Pranowo, governor of Central Java, also called for Israel’s removal from the competition. President Widodo sought to calm the situation through a public statement emphasising the need to “not mix sport and politics”. However, the announcement by Koster was the final straw for Fifa, which had already expressed concerns about Indonesia’s ability to host the tournament after a pitch invasion in October 2022 led to the deaths of 135 people at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang.
Indonesia’s relationship with Israel has been a never-ending source of political debate since Indonesia first achieved independence under President Soekarno. Despite having informal ties through trade, Indonesia is still yet to recognise Israel as a state because of its commitment to an independent Palestine under a two-state solution. Koster argued hosting Israel would violate Indonesian foreign policy because the two countries do not maintain formal diplomatic relations.
However, political pundits have suggested the recent turmoil may have more to do with domestic politics than foreign policy. Both Koster and Pranowo are backed by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the same party as Widodo, who is unable to seek a third term in office.
Polls have indicated Pranowo’s strong electability, were he to nominate as a presidential candidate in the 2024 general elections. PDI-P Chairperson, Megawati Sukarnoputri, reportedly ordered party members to make the statements on Israel, perhaps to strengthen the party’s popularity with Muslim voters – although the move has angered Indonesian football fans.
The cancellation of the Under-20 World Cup will also have some financial implications for Indonesia. Its tourism industry is set to miss out on $370 million and administrative penalties have been imposed on the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) – the indefinite suspension of Fifa funding to support the development of football in Indonesia.
This fiasco should serve as a wake-up call for Indonesia to do better quarantining foreign policy from domestic politics. With limited ability to project power through economic and military might, soft power is one of Indonesia’s primary sources of power. Certainly, President Widodo has shown how major events can be used to stimulate investment and enhance Indonesia’s international standing but its cool-headed hosting of the G20 stands in stark contrast to its recent handling of the Under-20 World Cup.
In fact, the fiasco could be a significant blow to Indonesia’s credibility and commitment to the impartiality of sport. Suppose Indonesia has ambitions to host major international sporting events in the future – the recent political turmoil will likely serve as a disincentive for event organisers who evaluate host countries on their ability to deliver successful events free from controversy.
Soft power strategies are implemented over long time horizons. Successful execution of soft power therefore requires a level of political stability. The Indonesian political environment will become more volatile in the lead up to the general elections in 2024. Indonesia’s diplomats need to start thinking carefully now about how to best protect Indonesia’s international reputation from blowback from the inevitable political infighting that accompanies elections.