Jokowi 1-0 Prabowo: The key takeaways from the first Indonesian presidential debate

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indonesia’s two presidential candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, faced off in the first presidential debate of the campaign. Who came out on top?

By John Pennington

Indonesians will go to the polls in April to decide whether Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, earns a second term as president or his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, should succeed him.

From surveys conducted between November 2018 and January 2019, pollsters give Jokowi a lead of between 12 and 24 points. However, as many as 16.8% of voters remain undecided. How the candidates perform on the campaign trail – debates included – could still gain them thousands, if not millions of votes.

The two men, along with their running mates, clashed during the first of five presidential debates this week. Millions watched on television and the internet as they responded to questions about corruption, terrorism, human rights and the rule of law.

The format was not conducive to a lively debate

The format prevented fiery debate. The candidates were given the questions beforehand and had had time to prepare their answers.  The organisers claimed this would ensure voters received well informed and comprehensively researched answers. That may have been the case, but it resulted in robotic answers and prevented a real debate emerging.

Both were, therefore, able to steer clear of topics that could have proved damaging for them. Jokowi avoided the Novel Baswedan case. Prabowo was not challenged on accusations that he committed human rights abuses under Suharto.

Corruption and terrorism dominated the debate

The pair clashed most prominently during the sections on corruption and terrorism. Corruption has become one of the main themes of this election. The most recent Transparency International figures place Indonesia in 96th place out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

Prabowo claimed he will come down hard on corruption and criticised Jokowi’s handling of the economy. Prabowo argued paying government officials more would eliminate graft.

“We must be able to ensure the quality of life of all officials that have the authority to make a decision so that they can’t be bribed,” he said. Jokowi disagreed, claiming that salaries were already sufficient and highlighted that officials could earn bonuses under the existing incentives program.

Jokowi had been expected to use the debate as a platform to offer an update on the Baswedan case. The investigation into an attack on the anti-graft investigator is nearly two years old. He did not mention it, perhaps aware that the lack of resolution to the case reflects poorly on his attempts to clean up corruption.

Their running mates made the most of limited opportunities to cut through

However, when it came to terrorism, it was neither Jokowi nor Prabowo who put across the best answers. As they stuck firmly to their scripts, neither convincingly reassured viewers that they would guarantee human rights while combating terrorism. Instead, their running mates took centre stage and arguably made a more significant impact despite having less speaking time.

Jokowi has chosen Ma’ruf Amin, an ex-leader of Islamic organisation Nahdlutal Ulsma, as his running mate. It is an appointment widely seen as a bid to shore up the Muslim vote. However, Amin barely featured until past the debate’s halfway point. When he did, he spoke with authority on terrorism and its root causes. These, he outlined, are usually a misunderstanding of religion or they arise from economic or social issues.

On the other side of the screen. Prabowo’s running mate Sandiaga Uno, a former Jakarta deputy governor, was more prominent. Like Amin, it was when he spoke on terrorism that he made the most impact. He argued that the government must fight corruption and terrorism by providing more economic opportunities for its citizens.

Jokowi landed decisive blows late on

Up until the closing stages of the debate, neither party emerged as a clear winner. It was only towards the end when they were answering questions they had not previously seen that Jokowi claimed the advantage.

He attacked the make-up of Prabowo’s party and its limited female representation. Prabowo spoke at the start of the debate about empowering women yet undermined his pledges by claiming the women in Jokowi’s party were bad decision-makers.

And when asked why the former army general has several convicted corrupt officials in his party, Prabowo stumbled badly. He failed to justify himself or meet Jokowi’s challenge.

Viewers often remember the final exchanges of any debate more than what preceded them. Prabowo’s comments may have done him some harm. It was, in any case, a weak note on which to finish.

The debates still have roles to play before election day

There are four further debates before voters go to the polls. No politician can win an election based purely on their performance in debates. However, with so many voters still undecided and almost three months until polling day, they have a huge opportunity to influence thousands of people.

Prabowo may be behind in the polls, but there is a long way to go. “Prabowo does have a large number of strong, passionate followers at a grassroots level who are quite determined to help him score an upset against Jokowi,” assessed Alexander R Arifianto, a research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “I believe it is premature to write off Prabowo at this point, despite Jokowi’s double-digit lead.”

Jokowi, therefore, has most to lose, but on this showing, he performed as well as could be expected. It is Prabowo who needs to work on his debating game if he wants to close the gap and convince undecided voters that his vision for Indonesia’s future is worth their vote.