“First Indonesia Presidential Debate in 2019: What’s Missing?” by Budi Irawanto

2019/6, 21 January 2019

The first in a series of presidential debates between Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno kicked off on 17 January 2019. The session focused on law, human rights, democracy and terrorism issues. It was broadcasted by major television stations in Indonesia. Prior to the debate, there was public criticism of the General Elections Commission’s (KPU) decision to give sample questions to the candidates in advance. KPU argued that they do not want to shame the presidential candidates if they are caught unprepared during the debate. Some activists criticized this as denying the public an opportunity to hear spontaneous and genuine responses from the candidates regarding hot-button issues facing the nation.

While the atmosphere surrounding the debate seemed staged and scripted, a couple of critical issues were neglected by both presidential candidates. Firstly, both candidates did not go into the specifics on long-unresolved human rights cases such as the murder of leading human rights activist, Munir Said Thalib, as well as the forced disappearance of pro-democracy activists between 1997 and 1998. Furthermore, recent cases such as the worsening religious intolerance and human rights violations in the troubled region of Papua were not paid much attention. Secondly, there is no open debate on the empowerment of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), despite constant threats from some politicians within parliament to weaken and abolish KPK. In other words, it seems that Indonesians only have a dim hope in resolving the gross human rights violations and fighting against corruption regardless of who will be elected president.

Clearly, both presidential candidates restrained themselves from dealing directly with past human rights abuses as the cases might implicate them. Since his run for the 2014 presidential election, Prabowo has been constantly questioned regarding his alleged involvement in many past human rights abuses. Likewise, Joko Widodo has made little progress in resolving past human rights abuses during his term, due to the possibility that these cases may implicate several former generals currently present in the president’s coalition. Not surprisingly, the family members of missing pro-democracy activists held their 570th demonstration at the entrance of the presidential palace in the morning prior to the televised debate.

Will the televised presidential debate affect the voters’ preference? It seems that the debate will have little impact on the candidates’ loyal voters. However, for the undecided voters, particularly the first-time and millennial voters, the debate seems less persuasive and convincing due to the lack of engagement from both candidates to resolve some ‘real’ issues pertaining to human rights and corruption. Not surprisingly, social media users were disappointed with the debate  since it was viewed as uninteresting (tidak menarik), stiff (kaku) and scripted. Whether both candidates will be able to successfully persuade the undecided voters through the televised debates still remains to be seen in the next four rounds of debate from February to April. These debates will focus on a wide range of issues, including energy usage, management of natural resources, maintenance and building of infrastructure, policies concerning education and healthcare, political and religious ideologies, military defense and international diplomacy and policies.

Dr Budi Irawanto is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.