Prabowo wins Indonesia’s first presidential debate

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Indonesia's Defence Minister and presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, gestures during a televised debate at the election commission headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, December 12, 2023. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

The three presidential candidates of Indonesia engaged in a live debate on December 12, discussing policy proposals, highlighting achievements, and in heated rounds of criticism ahead of the upcoming election on Valentine’s Day next year. The kick off debate in a series of five featured the hopeful presidents and their running mates, Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar, and Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud MD, as they sought to attract voters by outlining their plans for leading Indonesia.

Analysts consider the winner of the debate was Prabowo, as his answers remained enthusiastic amid heated exchanges and he referenced continuing Jokowi’s leadership directly and indirectly numerous times. Indonesia’s defence minister seemed impassioned compared to the other two candidates who appeared disconnected from the electorate according to observers.

Although accompanied by their running mates, only the presidential candidates were allowed to speak in the first debate. All duos are required to be present in all five debates, with specific rules governing when the vice-presidential candidates can speak. The second and fourth debates are reserved for the vice-presidential candidates, while the third and fifth debates are exclusive to the presidential candidates.

During the opening segment, Anies, aged 54, expressed his commitment to upholding the law and delivering justice to Indonesians. He acknowledged the presence of Gibran, aged 36, as a millennial vice-presidential candidate and highlighted the concerns of Generation Z and Millennials who care about the nation and marginalized groups, facing government pressure and violent threats when expressing their opinions.

Prabowo, 72, acknowledged Indonesia’s overall positive outlook, citing safety and controlled living costs, all the while recognising the inevitable challenges for a country of 280 million people. Emphasising that he and Gibran would address these issues, he spoke of their determination to eradicate corruption and the scope of their programme and goals.

The debate covered wide-ranging topics including law, human rights, corruption eradication, governance, public service improvement, democracy strengthening, disinformation handling, and civic harmony management. Each presidential candidate had a few minutes to present their vision and policy ideas, followed by a segment where they responded to questions from one another and a panel of experts.

As the debate progressed, tensions rose as candidates questioned each other’s track records, occasionally adopting a mocking tone that elicited enthusiastic cheers from the audience. An example of this was when Anies, the former Jakarta governor, indirectly questioned Defence Minister Prabowo about the importance of ethics, referring to Prabowo’s running mate, Gibran, who is the son of President Joko Widodo and the mayor of Solo.

Gibran initially faced age restrictions, being under 40, the minimum age for presidential or vice-presidential candidacy. However, a decision by the Constitutional Court expanded the eligibility criteria, allowing Gibran to run. When pressed on the ethics ruling, Prabowo asserted that his legal experts found no issue, underlining that Indonesians would ultimately judge, and hold them accountable by not voting for them.

In response, Prabowo turned the spotlight on Anies, questioning why, despite having a significant budget as Jakarta’s governor at the time, there was minimal progress in addressing the capital’s severe air pollution, often ranked as the world’s worst. Anies countered, asserting that pollution wasn’t solely from the city but also from surrounding areas. Prabowo responded, “This is challenging if you keep attributing it to the wind.”

Former Central Java governor, Ganjar, joined in, pressing Anies on his stance regarding relocating the capital to Nusantara in eastern Kalimantan. Despite recent public comments suggesting opposition to the capital move led by the current president, seen as a crucial part of the outgoing president’s legacy, Anies evaded a direct answer. He cited more urgent needs, such as repairing damaged schools in Kalimantan and constructing additional highways.

Ganjar continued to apply pressure, directing questions to Prabowo about forming a human rights court if elected as president. Prabowo stated that this issue had recurred in all his presidential bids. Prabowo didn’t spare Ganjar either, criticizing him for his management of a fertilizer shortage during his tenure as the Central Java governor.

Despite the heated exchanges, at the conclusion of the event, the candidates demonstrated sportsmanship by shaking hands and hugging. Supporters from each camp, seated among the audience, enthusiastically applauded and cheered.

This election marks the first time in 15 years that three pairs are contesting for Indonesia’s top leadership positions. On February 14 next year, approximately 204 million eligible Indonesian voters are expected to cast their votes to choose the country’s eighth president. The incumbent president, Joko Widodo, is ineligible for re-election due to constitutional limits on the number of terms a person can serve.

Under Indonesian election law, a presidential pair must secure more than 50% of the votes to win. If no pair achieves this threshold, a second round of voting will take place in June, and the pair with the least number of votes will be eliminated.

Currently, Prabowo and Gibran are the frontrunners, some 20 points ahead of the other two duos, with an electability rating of over 40%, according to various polls.

The second debate, scheduled for December 22, will feature vice-presidential candidates challenging each other on economic issues, including the digital economy, finance, investment, taxes, trade, state or regional budget management, infrastructure, and urban areas.

The subsequent debates will cover defence, security, geopolitics, international relations, energy, carbon tax, environment, agrarian matters, indigenous people, food security, natural resources, and information technology, improvement of public services, education, health, and employment.

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