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Wiser public is presidential debates' real challenge

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, February 22, 2019  /  04:23 pm
Wiser public is presidential debates' real challenge

A graphic illustration of a political debate (Shutterstock/-)

That time has again arrived for Indonesians to elect their president.

But the line of battle is pretty clear, since the incumbent and his challenger have already faced each other before. Except for the jaded and undecided, supporters have already identified their camps.

Even the reactions to the recent presidential debates were rather as expected and somewhat tepid, at least in my observation.

The diehards of both sides will always support their candidate's statements, no matter how shaky they might be, and nitpick the rival candidate's claims, even if they are true.

The difference is that this time, more people seem to be laid-back about the silliness of this pissing contest.

Instead of being drawn into the fray, many are simply creating memes of debate highlights and are having a good collective laugh, even at the expense of their preferred candidates.

Most of my friends still tuned into the two debate rounds, yet a considerable percentage decided to forego the second debate after they were let down by the quality of the first one.

And I have to wonder if this is one of the reasons the presidential debates are being taken somewhat lightly now: either people have wised up to the fact that "winning" a debate does not guarantee quality leadership or performance once a candidate is elected, or the debates are of such poor quality to factor into a voter's decision.

Still, the presidential debates are indeed a new addition to the Indonesian political scene.

Thirty-two years of Soeharto's quasi-military rule left no room for democracy, let alone a tradition of healthy public discourse without descending quickly into retaliaton for wounded egos or, just as bad, into rhetorical speeches.

Ira Koesno, a co-moderator in the first debate, said it best when she sternly reminded both candidates that it was about debating ideas, not a speech contest. 

The several presidential debates I've watched in the last few elections, I admit I rarely found a candidate who could explain his or her programs structurally and defend them factually during cross-examination.

It was also a rare candidate who could launch a proper rebuttal, instead of just attempting to corner their opponent.

Scoring occasional verbal punches is acceptable to spice up any political debate, but it shouldn't be largely about that.

Sadly, this year's presidential debates weren't an improvement for me.

The incumbent Joko Widodo, with his carefully crafted image of "Mr. Cool", was clearly defensive in the second round. And Prabowo too often went on empty rah-rah speeches or pseudo-tirades, while his unfamiliarity with the digital economy was spectacularly hilarious.

Perhaps not used to succinct discussions throughout his career as a cleric, Ma'ruf Amin went rambling off on tangents that his response to terrorist deradicalization ended up sounding brilliant.

And for all his shortcomings, Sandiaga Uno was the one who actually came well-prepared, and delivered.

Ever the eventual optimist, I have hope that within the next decade, the open debates in Indonesian politics will improve in quality and correlate better with work performance.

In the meantime, I may just go along with many of my fellow Indonesians in taking the debates as a mild source of information and a promising forum for entertainment.

So while the Jokowi campaign team is possibly running around frantically prepping Ma'ruf Amin, which I can only imagine is similar to the Sarah Palin scenes on Game Change ( 2012 ), I am equally frantic in my search for a unicorn to accompany me in watching the rest of this year's debates. 

Perhaps I should just send the unicorn straight to the debate venue. (hdt)

Lynda Ibrahim is a writer based in Jakarta who has a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.