Turn-backs risk Indon fury
High tensions: An election rally for Joko Widodo. Picture: Getty Images

The Federal Government is bracing for a surge in anti- Australian sentiment as it prepares to turn back an asylum seeker boat to Java in the middle of the Indonesian presidential election.

The West Australian understands the coalition Government had decided it could not "blink" on boat turn-backs, despite the risk the hardline policy could inflame anti-Western fervour that had featured heavily in the lead-up to the July 9 election.

Two asylum seeker boats carrying more than 200 people have been intercepted by Australian Customs in recent days.

One carrying 153 people, including 37 children, was intercepted about 250km west of Christmas Island on Saturday after setting sail from southern India on June 12. They claim to be Sri Lankan Tamils.

The second boat was intercepted by ACV Triton between Christmas Island and Java late last week.

It is understood that authorities intend to return this boat to Indonesia, but it is unclear what was being done with the bigger boatload of asylum seekers.

One option was to take them to Christmas Island before flying them to detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Inside the Government, the view is that the turn-back of boats has been the biggest factor in stopping the arrival of boats.

No boat has reached Australia since December 16.

They have been repelled under Operation Sovereign Borders either by being towed back to Indonesia or by putting the boat people in purpose-built orange lifeboats and sending them back.

Indonesian politics expert Greg Fealy, from the Australian National University, said that a boat turn-back in the "hothouse atmosphere" of a presidential election campaign might be used by candidates Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto to further their campaigns.

Associate Professor Fealy said Mr Prabowo had been stridently anti-Western in his speeches and if elected, as some major polls predict, would be "less congenial to Australia" than current President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"Joko and Prabowo are more nationalistic than SBY and a whole lot less statesmanlike," Associate Professor Fealy said.

"Prabowo has campaigned relentlessly on an anti-Western agenda - that Indonesia has been exploited by Western countries and Indonesia has been captured by Western thinking.

"Joko has been less inflammatory in his rhetoric.

"However, if Australia turns back a boat in the middle of a hothouse atmosphere of a presidential election there is a risk that one or both candidates will use it to buttress their nationalist credentials."

The West Australian

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