The Jakarta Post
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was met with criticism when he picked Ma’ruf Amin, a senior Muslim cleric who leads the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), as his running mate for the 2019 presidential election.
Not only was Ma’ruf seen as a force behind sectarian rallies that culminated in the prosecution of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, but he is also 75 years old.
In a country where almost a third of the population is aged 10 to 24 years old, critics have doubted whether Ma’ruf, who has spent most of his life studying and teaching Islam, can be relevant among gadget-clinging, selfie-taking young voters.
A special team in the Jokowi-Ma’ruf campaign has been working to prepare the candidates, particularly Ma’ruf, for the debate season, which starts Thursday.
Jokowi-Ma’ruf political communications director Usman Kansong said the team would focus on sharpening Ma’ruf’s knowledge on general issues outside his expertise of religion and sharia economics.
“Given his experience in speaking from one podium to another in delivering da’wah [teachings] as a cleric, we only need to sharpen his knowledge because Jokowi has been mastering it due to his presidential duties while Ma’ruf has yet to be the head of any public office,” Usman told The Jakarta Post over the weekend.
A December survey from Jakarta-based pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia shows that the incumbent ticket’s electability is at 54.9 percent, ahead of challenger Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno at 34.8 percent.
However, the pollster’s study on the popularity of the vice-presidential candidates shows a different result, with Sandiaga the more popular of the two. The younger Sandiaga is perceived to be closer to the people and a more firm and commanding figure.
Jokowi-Ma’ruf political communications deputy director Putra Nababan said the team would not overdo it in shaping the candidates just to attract young voters, as it was up to the candidates themselves to show their true personalities.
“We would not change their speaking styles and appearances,” Putra said.
He said the younger voters today cared more about substance than appearance, and that the public only spent five to 15 seconds judging based on appearance before focusing on more important issues during debates.
“So whether the pair wears sneakers or formal clothes, or whatever, it’s irrelevant. A YouTuber might wear trendy outfits but they would get fewer views if they talked about irrelevant topics or expressed uncool opinions,” Putra added.
A team of coaches from the campaign team is preparing the candidates for presidential debates that will be held five times on various topics. The team, which also includes former TV journalists and anchors like Putra, Tina Talisa and Meutya Hafid, will prepare talking points and assist the candidates in communicating their ideas effectively.
Usman said the campaign team’s deputy chairman, Abdul Kadir Karding, was the main figure behind debate preparation. He started coaching them last Tuesday on how to elaborate their ideas within a limited time.
Abdul said the team was confident about the ticket given the incumbent’s track record in the government, while Ma’ruf himself had experience in debates with fellow Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) members.
He said the team would only ensure that Jokowi and Ma’ruf were able to articulate their ideas concisely and with synchronicity.
“There is input from various figures, including leaders of political parties, but the star of the show is still Jokowi himself,” Abdul said.
Meanwhile, this year marks the fourth time that former Army general and Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo will take part in a presidential election.
One of his allies, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is the Democratic Party chairman, has become more involved in his campaign.
On Friday, Prabowo and Sandiaga went to Yudhoyono’s private residence to ask for his input.
Several Democrat and Gerindra executives, who attended the the meeting, confirmed that both figures mainly discussed preparations for a town hall meeting scheduled for Monday at the Jakarta Convention Center as well as the first debate on law, human rights, corruption and terrorism.
Some Democrat sources revealed that Yudhoyono wanted Prabowo to focus more on substance during the campaign instead of useless jargon.
“He wanted Prabowo to focus on his vision, mission and programs and advised him to be more down to Earth when making speeches, as well as to make pointers of what he said to make it more structured. Yudhoyono also urged Prabowo to make more public appearances,” said a Democrat executive who requested anonymity.
He added that Yudhoyono was currently acting as a coach for Prabowo and Sandiaga.
Democrat deputy secretary-general Renanda Bachtar told The Jakarta Postthat Prabowo needed to practice before going on stage.
“Although Yudhoyono has experience as a minister and incumbent [president], he always practices before facing the public,” Renanda said, adding that Prabowo had agreed to practice regularly.
The Prabowo-Sandiaga ticket has also established Team 8, which is a debate team.
Campaign team deputy chairman Priyo Budi Santoso said the debate team, inaugurated by campaign team chairman Djoko Santoso last week, consisted of several former ministers, including former energy and mineral resources minister Sudirman Said and former agrarian and spatial planning minister Ferry Mursyidan Baldan.
“I am the coordinator of the team. Sudirman handles the content and talking points for the debate, while Ferry coordinates the volunteers who will give support during the debate session,” Priyo said.
He added that they would also be in charge of preparing songs and chants for supporters.
Priyo said National Mandate Party patron Amien Rais, one of Jokowi’s most vocal critics, was part of the team but refused to offer details about the latter’s role.
In addition to Team 8, the camp has informally formed a debate evaluation team, with Yudhoyono acting as a mentor.
To make good on their preparations, Prabowo and Sandiaga will not travel outside of Jakarta to campaign.
This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post's print edition on Jan. 14, 2019, with the title "Rival camps prepare candidates".