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Jakarta Post

The great debate that wasn’t

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sat, January 19, 2019   /   07:59 am
The great debate that wasn’t Presidential candidates Joko Widodo-Ma'ruf Amin and presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno are on stage after the first candidate debate on Jan. 17. (JP/Dhoni Setiawan)

No one expected a surprise during the first presidential debate. We witnessed on Thursday night a redo of the same spectacle that took place five years ago. Both in style and substance, the first debate was a confirmation of all things we have long known about the two candidates. 

Just like five years ago, the look on President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s face Thursday night told us that he wished to be somewhere else, perhaps making a blusukan (impromptu visit) and meeting with an adoring crowd. 

After four years in office, Jokowi certainly looked reluctant to get up on stage and defend his track record to a challenger whom he defeated in the previous election. And despite accomplishing a lot in the last four years, Jokowi failed to capitalize on his track record to deliver a blow that could knock Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto’s presidential ambition sideways during the debate. Jokowi’s status as a marginally good public speaker may continue to compromise his ability to sell his stellar record.

It doesn’t help that many doubt Jokowi’s running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, can contribute much to improve the incumbent’s chances. After fumbling with the first two questions, Ma’ruf’s only contribution to the debate was delivering a couple of anodyne remarks on terrorism and deradicalization. After Thursday night, Jokowi’s campaign team needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with new strategies to prop up Ma’ruf.

And if with such an unremarkable performance, Jokowi was still declared the winner by some analysts, it was simply because Prabowo delivered such an atrocious performance. In the course of two hours, the former military general did and said a lot of things, including dancing on stage while being massaged by his running mate, Sandiaga Uno, making a false statement about Central Java being larger than Malaysia and saying that corruption was alright if it involved only a small amount of money. 

Beyond all the antics, what Prabowo presented on stage was further confirmation that if he was elected president, he would have an authoritarian tendency and be a leader who would have no problem sending corrupt civil servants to a gulag or would personally throw corrupt party members behind bars. 

His statements about the president being a chief law enforcement officer have also raised concerns that he might abuse the executive position to intervene in the country’s judiciary.

However, the best thing about the presidential debate was that a political candidate for the country’s highest office was able to test some of these outrageous ideas and that rival candidates were able to engage in a discussion about such proposals. 

The first debate is a reminder that the state of our democracy is strong, that political candidates can have a battle of ideas about how to best solve the country’s problems and chart a better future. And the fact that millions of would-be voters tuned in, parsed their statements (and made memes out of them), shows that the electorate is engaged in the political process. 

May the best candidate win!