Indonesian presidential candidates and their running mates traded jabs on issues including terrorism, corruption and human rights in the first televised debate ahead of the April 17 election, but neither side emerged as a strong winner.
Viewers who expected a fierce exchange on policy details were left disappointed because neither President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo nor his challenger, former general Prabowo Subianto, delivered creative proposals or punchy rebuttals.
The Jokowi-Prabowo face-off is a repeat of the tightly-contested 2014 election. A recent poll conducted before the first of five debates suggested that the race is still Jokowi’s to lose.
Jokowi said during the debate Thursday night that his government was adopting a combination of strong law enforcement and “persuasive approaches” in dealing with terrorism.
“Our country has been hailed as a model for fighting terrorism. It’s important that security personnel are armed with knowledge of human rights. We emphasize prevention through social, cultural, economic and religious approaches,” Jokowi said.
Prabowo flouted his credentials in dealing with terrorism, saying that he created an anti-terrorism unit when he served in the army’s elite special forces unit, Kopassus.
“Based on my experience, I know that terrorism is often sent from other countries and in disguise. It is made out to be the work of Muslims, but the truth is it could be orchestrated by non-Muslims,” Prabowo said.
“So I reject the radical stigma attached to Muslims,” said Prabowo, who draws support from millions of Muslim conservatives who see Jokowi as somewhat hostile to Islamist politics in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Playing it safe
Last year, the government disbanded Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, the local branch of an international group seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate, arguing that its ideology threatened the country’s unity. More than 85 percent of Indonesia’s 250 million people are Muslim.
Jokowi has picked conservative Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate to boost his Islamic credentials amid accusations that he is not sufficiently Islamic.
At the debate, Ma’ruf said terrorism is not jihad and is forbidden in Islam.
"Terrorism equals creating destruction. The Quran states that people who create destruction on earth must be punished severely," said Ma'ruf, who remained silent for much of the debate.
"If it’s a religious factor, we will straighten their deviant understanding of religion. If it’s a social and economic factor, the approach involves providing employment and assistance to put them back on the right path," he added.
Jokowi led Prabowo by 20 percent in a poll released in December by Indikator Politik Indonesia.
But Indikator said Jokowi’s re-election was not a foregone conclusion, noting that Prabowo’s numbers expanded from 30 percent to 34.8 percent between October and December.
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said neither candidate offered interesting or creative ideas about how to tackle terrorism.
“But I thought it was particularly conspiratorial of Prabowo to suggest that the major cause of terrorism was outside actors,” Jones told BenarNews.
Jones said both sides played it safe partly because they did not want to create controversy and alienate voters.
“I just think nobody wants to come up with original, creative ideas in a campaign where it creates too many risks to offer innovative thinking,” she said.
The Jokowi government has performed well in law enforcement in that many of the militant networks have been disrupted, but other aspects still leave much to be desired, Jones said.
“There’s a lot of more that needs to be done in terms of prevention strategies, and that includes a better rehabilitation program for deportees and for released prisoners and their families,” she said, referring to returnees from conflict zones overseas.
During much of the two-hour debate, Prabowo and his running mate, wealthy businessman Sandiaga Uno, highlighted economic problems facing the country, including unemployment and income inequality.
Prabowo criticized the president for failing to shore up the country’s economic growth, currently at around 5 percent annually.
The former general said if elected, he would raise the salaries of civil servants and government officials to prevent corruption, a plan rejected by Jokowi, who said that they were sufficiently paid.
Sandiaga said human rights would “reign supreme” if Prabowo and he were elected.
“Prabowo-Sandi will uphold human rights and this is non-negotiable,” he said.
Prabowo has been accused of committing human rights violations during his time in the military, including the disappearances of several pro-democracy activists during the dying days of strongman Suharto’s rule in the late 1990s.
Prabowo has denied any wrongdoing, saying that his conscience was clear.
Jokowi vowed to respect diversity, saying ethnic, religious and linguistic differences were divine blessings.
“Our country’s biggest asset is its unity,” he said.
But Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch said the candidates failed to address the issue of religious and gender discrimination.
“Indonesia has more than 400 local regulations which discriminate religious and gender minorities,” he said, citing the Islamic criminal code in autonomous Aceh province which criminalizes gay and sex outside marriage.
Many Indonesians were unimpressed by the candidates’ debating skills.
“The debate was pretty boring because the two pairs of candidates failed to elaborate on their policy proposals,” said Adi Prayitno, a political analyst at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.
“Prabowo was too cautious and squandered the opportunity to be on the offensive,” he said.
“All in all, it was a draw. Neither side is good or bad,” he concluded.
Some Indonesians online quipped that high school students were better debaters than the presidential candidates.
“This is a debate of two adults but in terms of debating skills, they are worse than high school students. There’s a lack of critical arguments, facts and data,” said a Twitter user, Muhammad Wildan Teddy.