“Grasi Ganja Ratu Australia” (“Clemency for Australia’s Ganja Queen”) was the headline running across the bottom of Indonesia’s Metro TV coverage of Schapelle Corby’s five-year sentence reduction recently. For good measure, the image over the host’s shoulder was a crudely doctored photo of Corby, undoubtedly the most famous Australian in Indonesia, with a crown on her head and her nation’s flag next to her.

“Ganja Ratu” has become the common description of Corby in the Indonesian media, showing the vast chasm between the ways the former Gold Coast beauty therapist is viewed in the two countries. It also shows the difficulty that any Indonesian public figure is going to have in showing leniency towards Corby, or anyone else involved in drugs. And with two members of the Bali Nine on death row and awaiting the result of clemency applications to the president, drugs cases look set to remain a diplomatic stumbling block for some time to come.

Indonesia remains unfashionably absolute in its approach to narcotics. Not for this majority Muslim nation is the “harm minimisation” rhetoric much favoured by liberals in other parts of the world.

Just last week the media seized on a string of drug busts to ask whether the country is becoming a hub for narcotics activity. Among the latest arrests was a British woman in Bali allegedly with 4.8 kilograms of cocaine (valued at $2.5 million) and a trio of Malaysians with an alleged plan to distribute $13.5 million worth of product. Also apparently in on the game are Indonesian military personnel, caught with one million ecstasy pills valued at $45 million.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has copped plenty of flak for exercising his constitutional power to reduce Corby’s sentence.

The narrative of the Corby sentence cut was complicated by the near-simultaneous release and repatriation of three young (probably under-age) Indonesians being held in Australian detention. The Australian government remained resolute in denying that the two were related. The Indonesian government seemed to be less definite in its dismissal of the connection, with some ministers struggling to maintain the pretence. As one of Chico Marx’s characters once said: “Who you gonna believe — me or your own eyes?”

Link or no link, Yudhoyono’s political opponents were making merry with the Corby sentence cut.

Some argued he had compromised Indonesian sovereignty by letting Australia get its way, an argument that taps into a well of discontent towards Australia based on the perception that the southern neighbour doesn’t treat the sprawling archipelago nation with enough respect.

Others argued that Yudhoyono had gone soft on drugs. It was, after all, the first time in his seven-year presidency he had granted clemency in a drug case. His position was made more awkward by a statement the president had made on Anti-Narcotics Day in June 2006:

“Piles of requests for clemency from drug offenders are on my desk. But the Supreme Court Chief Justice and I, myself, choose to safeguard the nation and the state.”

Lawmaker Mahfudz Siddiq applied the heat. “The government should explain why the president granted Corby clemency while at the same time he said he wanted to be tough on drugs crimes,” he said last Wednesday.

As for explanations, Yudhoyono himself remained quiet, leaving it to the Supreme Court to reveal that it had recommended he offered clemency on “humanitarian grounds”, because of Corby’s condition in prison.

The fallout from the clemency decision went beyond traditional political players. Late last week a savvy activist for fishermen from the islands of East Nusa Tenggara asked why Yudhoyono helped Corby when there are many fisherman being held by Australia for allegedly entering the nation’s waters illegally. “[We] want fair treatment from Australia in return for the Indonesian government’s policy to reduce the jail sentence for Corby,” Muhammad Ridwan was reported as saying. The Australian policy of burning boats, he said, was also a frustration.

For Yudhoyono, already under attack at home over a botched attempt to increase the price of fuel for consumers and allegations of corruption that are crippling his Democratic Party, perceptions of further weakness were the last thing he needed.

When the clemency news first broke a fortnight ago, it was seen by many as good news for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the two members of the Bali Nine drug smugglers currently on death row. If the president was willing to offer clemency on one drug case, then he may have an open mind on other applications before him. The public reaction subsequent to the announcement, however, is likely to reduce the chances of them being spared.

Most political leaders in their final years in office, liberated by not needing to seek re-election, are more willing to make bold, potentially unpopular decisions. Yudhoyono has shown no such inclination.

Risk-aversion has been his guiding principle of late, and on matters of drug cases, showing further leniency would seem out of character. In crude terms, the political cost would appear to outweigh the benefit.

His risk aversion does, however, create a glimmer of hope for Chan, Sukumaran and their supporters. While a clemency application remains in process, the punishment cannot be carried out. There’s also no time frame within which the president must decide. So Yudhoyono has available to him the option of waiting out the decision, leaving it for his successor, who is due to take office in late 2014. It’s an approach that would spare him anger at home and awkwardness aboard.

It’s worth noting that the application of the death penalty has slowed in recent years, according to a Lowy Institute report on the subject in March. No executions have been carried out since 2008, giving the 114 people on death row — including 43 foreigners — some small comfort.

Much to the chagrin of those who share Hugh White’s hopes for a more sophisticated relationship between Australia and Indonesia, this “third-order” issue may yet cause some more headaches.