Jokowi’s son and V-P candidate silences critics in debate ahead of Indonesia’s polls

Analysts say Mr Gibran’s performance was beyond expectations. Taking notes from his father’s playbook, he combined his slow, measured speech with technical jargon to confuse his opponents.

Arlina Arshad

Arlina Arshad

The Straits Times


A recent survey by polling firm Indikator Politik Indonesia showed Mr Prabowo and Mr Gibran would secure 46.7 per cent of the vote. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

December 29, 2023

JAKARTA – Weathering accusations of nepotism and political inexperience, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s son and vice-presidential candidate Gibran Rakabuming Raka has silenced his critics with a sterling election debate performance.

During the Dec 22 televised event ahead of the presidential election on Feb 14, the 36-year-old faced off his rivals, heavyweight Law and Security Minister Mahfud MD and seasoned Muslim politician Muhaimin Iskandar, delivering some punches that left them floundering.

Analysts say Mr Gibran’s performance was beyond expectations. Taking notes from his father’s playbook, he combined his slow, measured speech with technical jargon to confuse his opponents.

Mr Gibran asked Mr Mahfud about regulations on capturing and storing carbon dioxide, and quizzed Mr Muhaimin on the SGIE, without explaining it was the acronym for the State of Global Islamic Economy.

“This is similar to Jokowi’s debate style during the 2019 presidential election, when he used the term ‘unicorn’ and (then opponent) Prabowo Subianto didn’t understand it,” Dr Ambang Priyonggo, a political analyst from Multimedia Nusantara University, told The Straits Times, referring to the President by his nickname.

“In terms of communication style, Mr Gibran tries to emulate his father Jokowi. This seems to be a profitable strategy, as it reinforces the notion that he and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto are indeed ‘continuing’ Jokowi’s leadership,” Dr Ambang added.

The debate, which mostly focused on the economy, also played to Mr Gibran’s strengths, since he has been the mayor of Solo in Central Java for the past two years.

Mr Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a political analyst at the Indonesian National Research and Innovation Agency, told ST: “Mr Mahfud and Mr Muhaimin were excellent on law and religious issues, but not too adept on economic issues. They are also not decision-makers like Gibran. They do not provide policy solutions that engage voters, especially young and first-time voters.”

According to analysts, Mr Gibran also expertly pulled off some theatrics.

He was captured on screen bowing and kissing the hands of his opponents – a gesture of respect towards elders in Indonesia – as well as waving his hands upwards to rouse cheers from his younger supporters.

Similarly, Defence Minister and presidential candidate Prabowo, with whom Mr Gibran is sharing a ticket, had busted out a little dance at a Dec 12 debate.

Mr Yoes Kenawas, a research fellow at Atma Jaya Catholic University, told ST: “Their theatrical performance became the talk of the town. It’s more the performative aspects, rather than the substantive ones, (that are used to attract voters).”

Mr Yoes said that for the president and vice-president to be an effective team, technical knowledge is not enough, and that strategic thinking is also required to achieve bigger goals for the country.

But he added: “It is hard to see the (Prabowo-Gibran) pair do that.”

He acknowledged that Indonesia has progressed under Mr Widodo, but said many experts still had doubts whether the President’s policies and development strategies could ensure sustainable and equitable progress for the nation.

Mr Yoes said: “Statistics show impressive achievements. But on the ground, people still depend on state support, inequality is still a big problem, and more importantly, corruption is still there – if not getting worse in the past nine years. Democracy is also still declining.”

But so far, the pair’s tactics have paid off, if the latest popularity polls are to be believed.

A survey by polling firm Indikator Politik Indonesia released on Boxing Day showed Mr Prabowo and Mr Gibran would secure 46.7 per cent of the vote, while former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo and Mr Mahfud would garner 24.5 per cent of the vote.

Former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and Mr Muhaimin were expected to capture 21 per cent of the popular vote, according to the survey.

On Dec 27, Jakarta-based think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released the results of a poll it carried out between Dec 13 and 18.

It found that Mr Prabowo and Mr Gibran had a strong lead, securing the support of 43.7 per cent of the 1,300 respondents polled, followed by Mr Anies and Mr Muhaimin with 26.1 per cent, and Mr Ganjar and Mr Mahfud with 19.4 per cent.

The CSIS survey also found that the President had the trust of 86.1 per cent of those polled, and 74 per cent said they were satisfied with the performance of Mr Widodo’s government.

Mr Arya Fernandes, a political analyst at the think-tank, said there was still “time and hope” for the trailing candidates to turn the tide, as the survey showed that 10.9 per cent of respondents were undecided, while 24.8 per cent of respondents who currently favoured one candidate said they could still change their minds.

“There is still room to improve. The sky has not fallen,” he said.

Analysts said Mr Ganjar, who is running under the ticket of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and Mr Mahfud lack clarity in their political branding.

Dr Ambang said: “Mr Prabowo and Mr Gibran are clear about continuing Jokowi’s legacy. Mr Anies and Mr Muhaimin are clear about being an opposition and voicing change. Mr Ganjar and Mr Mahfud are neither here nor there, and yet they are chasing the same voters Mr Prabowo and Mr Gibran are after.”

However, Mr Ganjar’s campaign team refuted the results by the pollsters, saying its own analysts found that voters had “a tendency towards positive sentiments” for its candidate pairing.

The team’s political deputy Andi Widjajanto told a press conference on Dec 27: “Based on current developments, the Ganjar-Mahfud campaign strategy is moving on the right track. The rebound has occurred.”

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