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Jakarta Post

Presidential debate: Show candidates as real people, not robots

  • Endy Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, January 24, 2019   /   09:08 am
Presidential debate: Show candidates as real people, not robots Presidential candidates Joko Widodo-Ma'ruf Amin, General Elections Commission (KPU) chairman Arief Budiman (center) and presidential candidates Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno are on stage during the first candidate debate on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2019. (JP/Dhoni Setiawan)

Supporters of both presidential candidates, incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto, have been at pains to claim they won the first round in a series of debates.

There were really no outright winners in the debate on Jan. 17, but there was one clear loser: The voting public, those who had hoped that the encounter would help them make up their minds come voting day, April 17.

The debate would have given them a chance to get a closer look at the candidates and their running mates, not just their vision and mission, but also their character and personality, their ability to articulate themselves and explain ideas, and their communication skills.

Instead, we were served with candidates who appeared stiff, completely ill at ease, struggling to recite their campaign lines, which they had clearly failed to memorize.

In the debate, which was televised live, all four candidates — Jokowi and running mate Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo with Sandiaga Uno — looked like robots, or at best, bad actors.

The number of “undecided’s” and “don’t know’s” — ranging from 10 to 20 percent according to most surveys — is too large for pundits to give the election to Jokowi, the clear leader in all opinion polls. With three months to go, things can still change, and the five presidential debates could well prove to be a game changer. 

If it turns out to be a close election, as in the 2014 race that pitted the same two candidates against one another, swing voters could well be the deciding factor. Five years ago, Jokowi saw his massive lead slashed, so that he eventually won by a mere 5 percentage points.

It is unclear whether the debates had made the difference then, but they certainly offer an opportunity for both candidate pairs to reach out and persuade undecided voters.

The public did not really need to hear the vision and mission of candidates, something they could easily get from published statements. For the public, the debate is more about style and form, and not so much about substance.

They want to know more about leadership skills. Do the candidates have what it takes to lead this nation of 270 million people with all its complex problems? Which pair comes across more convincing as leaders and statesmen? Since we vote them in pairs, can we see the chemistry between the candidates and their respective running mates?

The General Elections Commission (KPU) seems more concerned with substance, which appears to be why it imposed rigid rules, including limiting times: Three minutes for the presentation and one or two minutes for responses. This prevented candidates from articulating their thoughts; instead they used their time to recite campaign lines, as if they were appearing on cosmetic ads for television.

Since the candidates had been given the list of questions in advance, rather than answering the questions, they were just reciting their campaign lines. They choreographed as much as they could their body language and their lines. 

If the idea of holding the debate was to show the perfection of our future leaders, they should have pre-recorded it, allowing for many retakes until they get their lines and acts right. 

Last week’s debate was devoid of human emotion, with the exception of when Prabowo danced as he waited for his turn to speak and Sandiaga massaged his shoulders to calm him down.

Fortunately, the KPU, following criticism, has agreed to review the format of the debate for the remaining four rounds.

For one, they have agreed not to submit the list of questions beforehand, hence subjecting candidates to possible surprises.

The KPU needs to relax the rules and let candidates appear as they are, as real human beings with all their imperfections. While they are not expected to have all the answers to the nation’s problems, how they handle questions would shed far more light on their character and personality than a highly choreographed debate could.

In 2014, Jokowi caught Prabowo unawares when he posed a question about a government agency with an acronym the challenger was not aware of. Prabowo fumbled as he tried to answer the question with no idea what it was all about.

In another debate, Prabowo’s running mate at the time, Hatta Rajasa, confused a government award for environmental activists with that for best cities. Jokowi’s running mate Jusuf Kalla capitalized by pointing out the error, sparking laughter from the audience.

No one is expected to know all the acronyms Indonesia has, and anyone could have confused the different awards. Prabowo and Hatta, however, made the mistake of trying to answer questions they did not understand to begin with. What they should have done was to ask for clarification before answering the questions.

To err is human, and voters will accept that, but to pretend that you know everything is downright dishonest, and that is something voters will punish.