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Vexed relations with Australia feature in Indonesian presidential debate -

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CHRIS UHLMANN: Australia's been accused of being distrustful and even fearful of Indonesia during a debate between the two men vying for president.

Relations between the two countries have been strained over the turn back of asylum seeker boats and revelations that Australia tried to tap the Indonesian president's phone in 2009.

In just over two weeks, Indonesians will go to the polls to directly elect a new leader.

The choice is between a former military commander, Prabowo Subianto, and the popular governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo.

During a live televised debate on Foreign Affairs overnight, the two men discussed the need to improve relations with Australia.

Indonesia Correspondent George Roberts reports.

GEORGE ROBERTS: Arriving in an open top Jeep at Senayan football Stadium in Central Jakarta, Prabowo Subianto was loudly welcomed by about 90,000 supporters.

At times yesterday's rally was more like a concert.

(pop music plays)

Prabowo's message was tuned for the staunchly nationalistic crowd.

PRABOWO SUBIANTO (translated): What is at stake on the 9th of July is whether Indonesia will have a clean government, a government that isn't a puppet government, the kind of government that will defend the interests of Indonesia, one that will defend the interest of all Indonesians.

(crowd cheers)

GEORGE ROBERTS: Tens of thousands of supporters were bussed in, given lunch and provided with placards, t-shirts and posters.

VOX POP: We have to have a president like him because he can make economy, economy for Indonesia go up.

VOX POP: You know, we are treated very bad among the nations in the world, Prabowo will change that.

GEORGE ROBERTS: In a debate overnight, his opponent Joko Widodo asked Prabowo Subianto why he thinks relations with Australia are turbulent.

PRABOWO SUBIANTO (translated): Frankly, I feel that the problems don't lie with Indonesia. The problem is, I think Australia has some kind of suspicion or phobia against us.

We don't want to cause trouble. We want to live in peace and be friends with Australia. We aren't a threat for Australia. We must convince them and we must prove that our intention is good but of course we need to remain firm in protecting our core national interests.

GEORGE ROBERTS: Tensions arose last November over revelations Australia had spied on the president and his inner circle.

Presidential hopeful Joko Widodo is urging diplomacy to reduce tension, conflict and friction.

JOKO WIDODO (translated): First there is distrust. This about trust. So several months ago, the tapping happened. This is about distrust. Trust between countries. Thus in the future, in my opinion, diplomacy between governments, between business partners, between people, needs to be maintained and promoted. This will reduce the tension, conflicts and frictions between Indonesia and Australia.

GEORGE ROBERTS: He says Australia views Indonesia as weak.

Prabowo Subianto seems to agree.

PRABOWO SUBIANTO (translated): We do not want to be considered to be weak. But if we have no strength of course we would be considered weak.

GEORGE ROBERTS: Australia's decision to send asylum seeker boats back tested relations further and saw the Indonesian Navy ordered to respond.

Joko Widodo again.

JOKO WIDODO: Be it about borders or asylum seekers, all these will be carried out with diplomacy and without any thought that we would use weapons or words of war.

GEORGE ROBERTS: There's less than two weeks of open campaigning before a pre-poll media blackout is imposed.

Some polls suggest the former military strong man Prabowo Subianto is closing the gap over the more moderate Joko Widodo.

This is George Roberts in Jakarta reporting for AM.