JAKARTA, June 15 — After weeks riding high in the polls with his blitzkrieg campaign, Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto found himself on the defensive this week following a lackluster performance at a televised debate against opponent Joko Widodo, and the emergence of incriminating information on his military past.
Monday’s debate involving the two tickets, the first of the five televised presidential debates ahead of the July 9 election, has proven wrong those sceptical of Jokowi’s ability to hold his own in a verbal face-off against Prabowo, the supposedly better orator of the two.
The independent press declared the Jakarta governor and his running mate Jusuf Kalla as the clear winner of the debate. Though far from being a silver-tongued debate champ — and at times still lacking the ability to expound on his ideas — Jokowi looked more confident and relaxed than the last time he gave a televised public address at an event also attended by Prabowo.
Donning suits (uncharacteristically for Jokowi who prefers his trademark plaid or white shirt), while Prabowo and running mate Hatta Rajasa wore white shirts, the Jokowi-Kalla duo complimented each other. They gave responses oriented around their own concrete achievements and offered sensible solutions to some of the issues.
Though at times risking sounding provincial when reeling off some of his achievements as Jakarta governor and Solo mayor, Jokowi sent a clear message: That he and Kalla (who was vice president to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004-2009) are tested, compared to Prabowo who has not held any public position since his dismissal from the military in 1998.
In comparison, Prabowo’s grand-ideas rhetoric and Hatta’s loquacious answers offered neither new nor tangible initiatives. Prabowo’s answers seemed ungrounded in reality, while Hatta, though the most articulate of the four, made normative statements that lacked credibility.
Hatta’s rhetoric that everyone is equal in the eye of the law, for example, quickly earned him rebukes by Netizens who pointed out that his young son Rasyid only got a six-month probation after killing two people in a New Year’s Eve accident while speeding in his BMW SUV. Rasyid has since left to study in Britain.
The most stirring moment, however, was during the cross-questioning segment, when Kalla probed Prabowo on measures to protect human rights.
Prabowo started by saying that protecting human rights also entailed keeping radical groups in check, but as he grew increasingly emotional he took the question personally.
“I suppose your rationale is that I cannot safeguard human rights, because I am a violator of human rights — more or less that is what you are driving at, right?” he asked in what must have been a cringe-inducing moment for his supporters in the audience and at home.
He defended himself as a soldier who had to carry out the tasks instructed by his superiors to safeguard Indonesia, and that it was up to his superiors to assess him. This prompted a follow-up question from Jokowi who pointed out that Prabowo had not answered the original question of what he would do to protect human rights, and from Kalla, who asked how his Army superiors had assessed him.
It was down hill from there for Prabowo. His opponents had visibly taken control of the situation, becoming bolder as the debate progressed.
That Prabowo lost his cool so easily seemed absurd, considering that he should’ve anticipated the million-dollar question his detractors had been wanting to hear from him.
Was he simply not ready, or was he too eager to give his version of the issue that he failed to address the bigger question (which could’ve actually saved him from falling into the trap set by Kalla)?
Prabowo was perhaps reacting to the latest assault on his character. A few days before the debate, a copy of the 1998 recommendation of the Indonesian military’s Officers Honor Council (DKP) to sack then Lt. Gen. Prabowo from the military was circulating among journalists.
Released after the fall of President Suharto, the document has been verified as authentic, and among its signatories was then Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and several generals who are currently active in politics. After Prabowo’s removal from the military, the former Strategic Reserve Commander voluntarily left Indonesia for Jordan.
According to the letter, Prabowo had misconstrued instructions from the Army chief in mid-1997 and proceeded to form a task force that conducted special operations in conflict areas. The letter also faults him for the abduction of pro-democracy activists, which he did not report to the military chief until April 1998. The content of the letter also portrays him as irresponsible and untrustworthy.
Two former DKP members who signed the letter, Luhut Panjaitan and Fachrul Razi, both Jokowi’s supporters, have since come out to say that the reason the letter had been kept confidential was because he was Suharto’s son-in-law.
All this has apparently come at a price for Prabowo. Following the debate, a survey conducted by Cyrus Network showed that Jokowi-Kalla have bounced back again in popularity at 51.6 per cent, compared to Prabowo-Hatta at 38.8 per cent. Other surveys have also shown that though Prabowo has managed to narrow the margin against his opponent, his popularity might have reached its peak.
But with four more debates still to come, including two of the presidential candidates without their running mates, anything can happen. The survey body Cyrus says its sampling showed that 80 per cent of Indonesians are awaiting the debates, which have the potential to change their minds.
That’s good news for Indonesian democracy, but it certainly poses significant additional pressure on the two candidates.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.