Foul weather friends: Shinzo Abe and Susilo Yudhoyono

Dec 15, 2008
*Special to asia!
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Shinzo Abe and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono need each other to bolster their chances at re-election.

It is a truth universally acknowledged in politics that putting two losers together does not make them winners. But try telling that to Shinzo Abe and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, visited Yudhoyono, the Indonesian President popularly known as SBY, in August. After that he went off to India and Malaysia.

The trip, though not billed that way, is the first of two do-or-die visits for the massively beleaguered Abe, who should by right have resigned after leading his ruling party to a crashing defeat at the Upper House election in late June. Abe’s Liberal Democrat Party lost so many seats that the opposition Democratic Party got to appoint the first non-LDP Speaker since 1955.

If the usual Japanese way were followed, Abe would have resigned to take responsibility. But the man who took the premiership from his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi less than two years ago has refused to do so, claiming it would create a political vacuum. He also pledged to continue with his economic policies, including the crowd-pleasing tax cuts.

Despite Abe’s background – father a foreign minister and grandfather a prime minister – his support among voters has reached a near historic low. He desperately needs to do something to boost his standing, hence the trip to Asia. After that he is expected to hold a trilateral talk with US President George Bush and John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia when the three see each other at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group meeting in Sydney in early September.

But it is on Indonesia that Abe has pinned much of his hope in drumming up voter support. Indonesia is the biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas to Japan. But the current contract stands to expire in 2011, after which the country may only supply Japan with 3 million tons of LNG a year, a quarter of the 12 million tons Japan demands. That, at least, is what Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla has been saying, claiming that Indonesia needs to put a higher priority on complying with its growing domestic gas demand.

Energy sufficiency has always been a major issue in Japan. Abe had been hoping that he could reach some sort of settlement in Indonesia on future gas supply. This would boost his standing back home.

Unfortunately SBY himself is in an election bind. An outsider who holds on to power through a tenuous coalition, SBY has to work to get re-elected in 2009. Many analysts think it will be an uphill task for him.

Among those likely to stand against him is his vice president Jusuf Kalla. The businessman-turned-politician is chairman of Golkar, the party on which former strongman Suharto rode to presidency for three decades. At 65, Kalla is on his last leg in the running – if he misses this round he will be 72 when the next election comes around, a little too old for the job.

An energy agreement between Japan and Indonesia would also boost the standing of SBY. Japan is Indonesia’s biggest trading partner, and the new agreement would bring in much needed foreign reserves, and investment for the country.

But Abe’s trip ended in disappointment. While Japan and Indonesia reached a wide variety of trade agreements – which analysts think would be difficult if not impossible to implement – there was no energy deal. The most the two leaders could do was to agree on "strengthening cooperation on energy and mineral resource security". Abe, in truth, flew away from Jakarta empty-handed. His trip had done little to help him or SBY in their coming election battles.


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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