Happier days: Jokowi at his 2012 inauguration as Jakarta governor. Photo by Kreshna Aditya on flickr.

After ignoring international outrage and desperate pleas over the executions of foreign drug smugglers, including two Australians, James Giggacher asks if Jokowi can ever win back a place in our hearts?

As Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumaran and six other men stared down their executioners on Indonesia’s prison island, Nusakambangan, in the early hours of Wednesday, they sang Amazing Grace.

Their last minutes provide a powerful image which speaks to an even more powerful idea, redemption; one of the central narratives in the whole sorry saga of Indonesia’s latest round of state-sanctioned killings.

At the centre of it are Australians Chan and Sukumaran, who after 10 years in Bali’s Kerokoban prison had turned a new leaf. The pastor and the painter, as they came to be known, were nothing like the truculent ringleaders they went to jail as. In their time they worked to stop drugs in their own prison and improve the lives of fellow inmates. But it is just not about reform.

As ANU prisons expert Clarke Jones and I have written before, the death of Chan and Sukumaran has now robbed Indonesia President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’ of two of his most powerful potential advocates in his ‘war on drugs’’ two shining examples of rehabilitation should have been held up with pride by Indonesian authorities.

There can be no acknowledged redemption for Chan and Sukumaran, and drug traffickers like them. But can there be redemption for Jokowi? That depends on who you ask.

In his eyes he has done nothing wrong. As flawed as the logic and the data he uses to justify his stance, its possible Jokowi truly believes the death penalty is the best way to stave off a ‘drug emergency’. For a national leader described as being under the thumb of his political paymaster, party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who expects him to serve not as President but as a ‘party functionary’, might well think he’s shown decisive action and resolve.

Jokowi is not set to lose face with his own people, most of whom, also support the death penalty for crimes like drug smuggling. That isn’t to say that there aren’t Indonesians who disagree with what Jokowi has done. In executing 12 foreigners and two Indonesians in just six months, Jokowi hasn’t just broken the record for most number of single executions in a year (previously 10); he’s buried the hopes on restoring a previous moratorium on the death sentence. This has been received just as poorly in some sections of Indonesia as Australia.

And if Jokowi, is truly against drugs, he might want to start investigating his own police force, which seem to be a good part of the problem. That’s hard to do though, when you’ve helped undermine your country’s anti-corruption commission.

This latest move may also distance Jokowi from Indonesian civil society and the NGO community – who had an important role in helping him across the line in 2014’s tight presidential race. For people who saw Jokowi as being elected on a platform of reform there is also a sense of disappointment and a little shock. While not campaigning on human rights, it was in Jokowi’s manifesto. As he was standing about against Prabowo Subianto, with his own questionable human rights record, there developed an assumption that he would stand for them.

However, there was never any clear pledge on judicial, political or social reform. In fact, during his election campaign there were already signs that human rights was of no great concern, and after coming to office, some dubious appointments to key positions means that known human rights abusers maintained their power and influence at the centre of Indonesian politics.

With Australia taking the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassador, some feel that the relationship between Canberra and Jakarta has reached its lowest ebb since the East Timor crisis of 1999. Indonesians might say the lowest point was the revelations that Australia had been hacking the phones of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and other members of the executive. SBY withdrew his ambassador out of Canberra at that time. .

The diplomatic move feeds into broader public anger and disappointment, with many (but not all) Australians making it clear that Jokowi is persona non grata. The National Portrait Gallery has removed a portrait of him for fear it will be vandalised. The Department of Foreign Affairs has been flooded with demands that aid spending be cut. Other retaliatory measures could be suspending trade and blocking Indonesian interest in multilateral meetings.

So can the relationship be brought back to normal? For Jokowi’s part, it’s probably not a high priority. His focus is clearly domestic and he is distancing himself from his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s jet-setting focus on foreign affairs. SBY’s “1,000 friends, zero enemies” approach is being quickly whittled away. And as ANU expert Greg Fealy argues, for Jokowi, diplomacy is an “abstraction”.

While talking of “consequences”, both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Tony Abbott have stated publicly that the relationship is of vital importance. They are right; the educational, people-to-people, cultural, business, military and even legal exchanges and links between the two nations are too important to cut loose.

Between 2011 and 2015, Australian spent $55 million in aid to help improve Indonesia’s justice system. We should continue to work with Indonesia to strengthen its legal system and its rule of law. We should also continue to use aid to improve the country’s education, health, and social development, as well as economic and democratic governance.

After the phone hacking scandal of 2013, while it never apologised, Australia agreed to set up a series of protocols with Indonesia to ensure that such surveillance didn’t happen again. This latest episode provides a similar chance for reciprocation. As former ambassador to Jakarta John McCarthy has pointed out, diplomacy is not about friendship; it is about interests. Rather than slam the door, Australia should outline its interests, and understand Indonesia’s when it comes to death and drug smuggling. Most importantly, we should find where best those interests intersect, and how we can use this to strengthen and deepen existing ties.

We should take a seat at the table and express why we are angry, that’s a given; especially with incompetence making some of the process look unduly and provocatively cruel. And like Indonesia’s displeasure at Saudi Arabia when it recently beheaded its citizens without notification, so Jakarta should understand our displeasure that it didn’t work hard enough to keep Canberra in the loop. Dodging phone calls is not a good look.

Australia should tell Indonesia that this all of this is not acceptable, nor the behaviour of a ‘close friend’ and outline exactly what they expect when it comes to our citizens and their treatment at such highly emotive and sensitive times – even within the bounds of Indonesia’s loosely applied, inconsistent, and, quite frankly, corrupt ‘sovereign legal system’ (as Tim Lindsey’s excellent piece in The Age shows, with its inconsistency, political nature and penchant for bribes, there is the whole question of whether Indonesia’s justice system can redeem itself from this latest charade). But by shouting from the outside, there is little chance we will be heard.

Keeping channels open also provides an opportunity for Australia to influence the conversation about the death penalty in general from its own perspective. By continuing to sit down with Jakarta and speaking from the point of view of a nation that’s lost its own citizens, Australia could provide a welcome voice and advocate for Indonesian citizens on death row overseas. Working together to stop the death penalty across the region would surely provide greater impetus to stop it in Indonesia.

Herein lies the real chance for redemption, and the best way to honour the memory of Chan and Sukumaran. Australia, both within our political elite, and broader society, must now make opposition to the death penalty a sustained and ongoing cause – and not just when the lives of our citizens are on the line. As ANU foreign policy expert Andrew Carr argues, this would require a good argument, a strong platform to build our case, and the resilience to see it through. It will also require evidence showing how the death penalty doesn’t deter drug smuggling. Most of all it requires tough conversations with key ally the United States and major trading partner China.

Bishop has already flagged a debate on the death penalty and drug trafficking in the region. Through the right multilateral forums and bilateral ties Australia can influence change; we can help redeem a sorry situation. With more than 17 Australian citizens and many more from other countries on death row across Asia there is much work to be done.

It may be too late to bring back Chan and Sukumaran. But we can ensure their legacy lives on by working for profound change. That would be amazing grace.

James Giggacher is Asia Pacific editor at The Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific and has covered Indonesia politics for specialist Southeast Asia website, New Mandala.