December 27, 2023
JAKARTA – Vice presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming Raka stole the show during the election debate on Friday as he squared off against experienced rivals who, according to analysts, had their hands tied by their connections to the current administration, led by Gibran’s father President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
Since the announcement of his vice presidential bid to run alongside presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in October, Gibran has been facing scrutiny over his inexperience in public office as well as accusations of being part of Jokowi’s efforts to establish a political dynasty once he finishes his term next year.
Gibran was also criticized for declining to appear at public debates and discussions held by universities and other organizations.
But some analysts have praised Gibran’s performance as he has managed to stand his ground while throwing jabs at his seasoned rivals, Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD and deputy House of Representatives speaker Muhaimin Iskandar.
“Gibran’s performance was surprising as he was hardly on the defensive throughout the debate […] and appeared confident compared to the others in conveying his vision and mission related to the economy,” said Kennedy Muslim of Indikator Politik Indonesia.
Gibran firmly defended his father’s economic policies, including the Nusantara capital city (IKN) project in East Kalimantan. He described the project as a “symbol of equality” that would create jobs and distribute economic growth more evenly to regions outside Java.
However, the project has struggled to secure the foreign investment that was meant to cover most of its funding and has only attracted local investors; something that Mahfud and Muhaimin both grilled the Surakarta mayor about on the debate stage.
Read also: Gibran defends his father’s policies
Gibran calmly countered the attacks by questioning Muhaimin’s change of heart after he previously celebrated the launch of the IKN project. He also suggested that Mahfud, a constitutional law professor, do a “Google search” on what Gibran claimed to be a long list of investments made into the new capital city project.
Both Muhaimin and Mahfud looked “unprepared for the debate,” said political and security lecturer Yohanes Sulaiman at Jenderal Achmad Yani University (Unjani), highlighting National Awakening Party (PKB) chairman Muhaimin as the weakest candidate on the stage on Friday.
Yohanes had hoped that Muhaimin, as a representative of the opposition and a seasoned politician who once took over the PKB from the hands of then-chair Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, could push Gibran into a corner.
“However, what happened was that Gibran seemed to dominate the debate,” he added.
On the other hand, Mahfud is not the type of candidate who can do well in televised debates, which are often used for creating soundbites for social media. “He’s better suited for serious and academic debates,” Yohanes continued.
While a few heated exchanges occurred, the Friday debate was largely tame, with candidates mostly nodding at each other’s remarks. This contrasted with the first debate, when presidential candidates Anies Baswedan, Prabowo and Ganjar Pranowo did not hesitate to challenge each other and broach hot topics.
Observers estimated ahead of the debate that Gibran would take the most heat given his perceived inexperience and commanding lead with Prabowo in opinion polls. But both Muhaimin and Mahfud appeared to refrain from playing hardball.
While Gibran’s track record as Surakarta mayor, his first public position, which he has held since 2021, was put in the spotlight, Muhaimin asked him for “tips and tricks” on how to bag Jakarta-funded infrastructure projects, which commentators called a “soft” question.
Their reluctance to attack Gibran might have been caused by the fact that Muhaimin and Mahfud had their hands tied to their current alliance with the Jokowi administration.
The PKB backed Jokowi’s 2019 campaign and was rewarded with several positions in the cabinet, including the village, disadvantaged regions and transmigration minister, which is held by Muhaimin’s brother and party politician Abdul Halim Iskandar.
Mahfud is still one of Jokowi’s coordinating ministers.
“Both Mahfud and Muhaimin are part of the [regime], so it appears that there’s a reluctance from their sides to launch scathing attacks against the President’s son,” said political lecturer Ahmad Khoirul Umam of Paramadina University.
Such reluctance could also be observed in the campaigns of each candidate.
When asked about the new capital city project, Anies said that he would cancel the project if elected, arguing it would create inequality in other regions. But Muhaimin’s PKB, which is still supporting Jokowi’s administration, has been taking a wait-and-see approach.
Meanwhile, Mahfud, whose camp has been positioning itself as a supporter of Jokowi’s policies, is “caught between wanting to maintain Jokowi and PDI-P supporters and the need to create a separate identity and distance itself from Prabowo and Gibran,” Yohanes said.
Like father, like son
Commentators also pointed out Gibran’s emulation of Jokowi’s public speaking style, which they saw as an effort to appeal to his father’s supporter base, some of which is still undecided about which candidate pair to support.
“Judging on his performance, Gibran had a clear target audience: his father’s voters in previous elections and young people,” said Usep Syaiful Akhyar, researcher at Jakarta-based think tank Populi Center.
The Surakarta mayor also attempted to outmaneuver his rivals by deploying the same tactic his father used in the 2019 presidential election debate, during which Jokowi utilized buzzwords such as “unicorn”, which refers to start-ups with a valuation of US$1 billion or more, to baffle his then-rival Prabowo.
On Friday, Gibran asked about Muhaimin’s plan to lift Indonesia’s rank in the SGIE, which stands for the State of the Global Islamic Economy, an annual index of the global Islamic economy issued by United Arab Emirates-based DinarStandard.
Muhaimin wasted his two-minute response time to ask Gibran about the acronym, which Prabowo’s running mate used to lecture Muhaimin about the term.
“Frankly, it’s not a fair question since this is not a game of Jeopardy,” Yohanes said, referring to the popular American game show. “But this was quite effective in puncturing Muhaimin’s image as a notable Islamic movement figure.”