Indonesian presidential candidates spar over conflict, democracy, human rights

Dandy Koswaraputra, Pizaro Gozali Idrus and Nazarudin Latif
Indonesian presidential candidates spar over conflict, democracy, human rights Candidates Ganjar Pranowo (left), Prabowo Subianto and Anies Baswedan face off for their first Indonesia presidential debate at the General Elections Commission office in Jakarta, Dec. 12, 2023.
Eko Siswono Toyudho/BenarNews

In their first televised debate on Tuesday, the three candidates vying for Indonesia’s presidency in February 2024 clashed over human rights, the conflict in the restive Papua region and the state of democracy in Southeast Asia’s most consequential country.

Observers characterized the debate as lively, as the contenders did not hesitate to challenge one another and broach hot topics, especially in confronting the current front-runner, three-time presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. 

Anies Baswedan, the former governor of Jakarta, accused the government of failing to address the root causes of violence and injustice in the easternmost region of Papua, where separatist rebels have been waging a low-level insurgency for decades.

He said the government should not only enforce the law and protect the rights of all Papuans, but also engage in dialogue with all stakeholders to find a lasting solution.

“Peace is not the absence of violence. Peace is the presence of justice,” he said.

Prabowo, a former army general and the current defense minister, acknowledged the complexity of the Papua issue and said there were “foreign interference” and ideological factors behind the separatist movement.

“We have to uphold the law and protect all Papuans from the brutality of the separatists and terrorists,” he said.

Ganjar Pranowo, the former governor of Central Java, agreed with Anies. 

“I think dialogue is the most important thing to involve all the important forces and groups to address the root cause of the problem,” he said. 

Violence between Indonesian security forces and separatist rebels has spiked in recent years in the Papua region, a former Dutch colony that was transferred to Indonesia in 1963. Papua was formally incorporated into Indonesia after a United Nations-supervised referendum widely seen as rigged. 

Human rights groups have accused both sides in the conflict of committing atrocities and violating human rights.

231212_ID_Anis dan Prabowo .jpg
Prabowo Subianto (left) exchanges views with fellow candidate Anies Baswedan, during the 2024 presidential candidate debate at the General Election Commission Office in Jakarta, Dec. 12, 2023. [Eko Siswono Toyudho/BenarNews]

Graft, money politics, the health of democracy

Anies said if elected, he would reform the political financing system to reduce the influence of money in politics and to prevent what he described as the sale of public offices. He also said he would provide free legal aid to citizens who face discrimination and persecution.

Prabowo said he would improve the welfare and professionalism of judges, prosecutors and police officers to prevent them from being bribed or influenced. He also said he would empower the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to weed out graft at all levels.

The reputation of the KPK has been tarnished in recent years following the passage of a 2019 law to reform the agency. The law, passed under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s watch, included the establishment of a supervisory board that curbed the agency’s investigative powers, as well as a requirement for employees to take a civics test.

The candidates also sparred over the state of democracy in Indonesia, which has been criticized by some observers and activists for declining under Jokowi’s administration.

Anies said he would defend freedom of expression and the role of the opposition in a democracy. He criticized Prabowo for joining Jokowi’s coalition after losing the 2019 election, saying he “lacked the stamina” to be in the opposition.

Prabowo shot back, saying he did it for the sake of national unity and stability. He denied that democracy was deteriorating in Indonesia, saying Anies was able to win the Jakarta governorship in 2017 despite facing the incumbent government.

Ganjar said he would respect the constitutional rights of all citizens and groups, but also uphold law and order. He said he would not tolerate any attempts to undermine the unity of the nation.

‘A staunch defender of human rights’

Anies wasted no time in attacking the government for giving special privileges to Jokowi’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who became Prabowo’s running mate through a controversial Constitutional Court ruling that amended the age limit for presidential and vice presidential candidates. 

Prabowo responded by saying that the Constitutional Court had clear rules and its decisions were binding.

Anies also criticized the government’s suppression of free speech.

“There are thousands of millennials and generation Z who care about fellow citizens, who care about those who are marginalized when they express their opinions, when they criticize the government, they are faced with violence, with clashes and even with tear gas,” Anies said.

Amnesty International’s executive director in Indonesia, Usman Hamid, praised the presidential candidates for discussing Papua in their first debate, but said they ignored the plight of a New Zealand pilot who had been held hostage since February by rebels in Papua’s Nduga regency.

Usman told BenarNews that Prabowo used anti-foreign rhetoric without evidence and blamed the pro-independence group for the violence and conflict in the region.

“Prabowo’s stigmatizing [the rebels] as terrorists will only worsen the situation in Papua. His answer was very wrong,” Usman said.

Hendri Satrio, founder of the Indonesian Public Opinion Discussion and Study Group, said the election commission surprised the public by presenting a lively debate.

231212_ID_Ganjar dan Prabowo.jpg
Ganjar Pranowo speaks while fellow candidate Prabowo Subianto listens during the 2024 presidential candidate debate at the General Election Commission Office in Jakarta, Dec. 12, 2023. [Eko Siswono Toyudho/BenarNews]

Anies drew a clear line as an opposition candidate, while Ganjar appeared to be the most patient of the three. Prabowo did not perform as well as he had in past years’ presidential debates, he said. 

The exchanges were at times fiery, with Prabowo raising his voice or trying to interrupt, and appearing irritated over questions about human rights and his running mate. Anies and Ganjar were composed throughout. 

“This debate makes the public anticipate the next debate, which will feature the vice presidential candidates,” Hendri said. The match-up is scheduled for Dec. 22.

The candidates also sparred over issues that are considered to be their weaknesses, such as Prabowo’s alleged involvement in past human rights violations, Anies’ handling of pollution in Jakarta and Ganjar’s management of fertilizer for farmers in Central Java.

During the 2014 presidential election, Prabowo reportedly admitted that he had helped abduct pro-democracy activists in the waning days of strongman Suharto’s regime when he was a general in the country’s special forces and was ordered to do so. Thirteen of the disappeared have never been found.

Prabowo, who lost the presidency to Jokowi in 2014 and 2019, responded that accusations that he was involved in human rights abuses came up every election year. 

“I am a staunch defender of human rights,” Prabowo said. “The truth is, former political prisoners and people who were said to have been abducted by me are now on my side.” 


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.