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Jakarta Post

Debating presidential debates

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, February 19, 2019   /   08:27 am
Debating presidential debates Presidential candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (left) shakes hand with his contender, Prabowo Subianto, after the 2019 presidential candidate debate at Hotel Sultan in Jakarta on Sunday. The debate was focused on energy and food, natural resources and environment as well as infrastructure. (JP/Donny Fernando)

It was too much to expect the two presidential candidates contesting the April 17 election to emulate the great minds when they squared off for the second time on Sunday. But the public’s reception, which was generally lukewarm, at least from the way some mainstream media reported the televised event, should tell us that something, if not many things, went wrong.

Both the incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his contender Prabowo Subianto lacked fresh ideas when they exchanged fire or responded to questions prepared by panelists in a series of topics during the debate. On several occasions, both Jokowi and Prabowo quoted inaccurate data to support their arguments.

The General Elections Commission (KPU) had indeed wised up from the widely criticized first presidential debate on Jan. 17, which featured the presidential and vice presidential candidates. But despite the changes in format, they were barely noticeable, except that Jokowi and Prabowo were without their respective running mates on Sunday.

No matter how convincingly each presidential candidate’s camp claimed victory in the debate, we doubt their performance will affect undecided voters, let alone swing voters. While the debates provide the candidates a golden opportunity to increase their support base, Sunday’s debate, like the previous one, only strengthened the conviction of their supporters.

A number of surveys conducted prior to the Feb. 17 debate revealed a considerable percentage of undecided voters, ranging from 10 to 20 percent. There is a likelihood they may not vote altogether in a show of their reportedly widespread apathy. For a democracy that has yet to mature such as Indonesia, political participation is key in order for democracy to gain a foothold.

It is safe to say that despite improvements in the flow of the debate, the close encounter between the two presidential candidates on Sunday failed to reach its goal. As happened in the previous debate, neither of the candidates could explore their ideas substantially. The root of the problem partly rests with the time constraint: Each presidential candidate ran out of time even to explain the reasons behind their specific agenda.

The KPU forced Jokowi and Prabowo to address too many issues within too short a time. The two debated the issues of food and energy, infrastructure, natural resources and the environment, which individually would require an hour of talk to bear fruit.

Indeed, knowledge of such crucial issues is a must for candidates for the highest office, but asking them to explain their views pertaining to five themes in less than two hours would only result in disappointment for many. The candidates’ lack of public speaking skills further discourages the audience from watching the debate.

With three more debates in the pipeline, there is no choice for the KPU other than offering a radical change if it wishes to make the undecided decide and, hence, boost voter turnout on April 17. One of the options is focusing on one or two particular issues in each of the debates.