Race heats up with testy first Indonesian presidential candidates’ debate

During the debate, the three traded barbs on the hot-button issues of law, corruption, human rights, democracy and governance.


Indonesia's leading presidential candidates took part in the first debate on Tuesday. PHOTO: THE JAKARTA POST

December 13, 2023

JAKARTA – The two-hour election debate on Tuesday evening among the candidates seeking to succeed outgoing President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo saw Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan trade barbs on the hot-button issues of law, corruption, human rights, democracy and governance.

The debate came at a critical time in the race, with Ganjar and Anies neck-and-neck for second place and the spot to compete with frontrunner Prabowo in the possible runoff, which analysts have predicted to be a probability since no ticket is likely to secure a majority in the first round.

Tuesday’s debate, the first of five election debates before February’s election, began to heat up just after Anies took a question from a panelist on the decline in public trust in political parties. He responded by saying that the problem went beyond political parties, arguing that it was Indonesian democracy itself that had proven to be untrustworthy, citing limited freedom of expression, restrictions imposed on opposition figures and the opaque election process.

But there must also be reform of political parties, he added, calling for transparent funding of political parties.

Prabowo is making his third run following two failed presidential bids against his former bitter rival Jokowi after he made a game-changing decision naming Jokowi’s son Gibran Rakabumin Raka as his vice presidential running mate. The former Army general has been dominating the race, with a 20-point lead in various surveys released days before Tuesday’s debate.

Read also: 2024 Election Debate: Round 1

Highlighting the importance of opposition parties in the democratic process, Anies pointed out how Prabowo, who decided to join Jokowi’s cabinet and serve as his defense minister, could not hold out for long in opposition.

“He said himself that when he wasn’t in power, he couldn’t do business,” Anies said. “Power must be more than business, money. Power means exercising the people’s sovereignty.”

Ganjar said he was reluctant to jump into the fight between the old allies but continued by emphasizing the importance of political education.

“Political education should be the job of all parties,” Ganjar said.

Halfway through Tuesday’s debate, when his turn came, Ganjar immediately asked Prabowo for his thoughts on the controversial Constitutional Court ruling that paved the way for Gibran to run as vice president.

Read also: Gibran cleared to run despite controversy

Prabowo responded by saying the Constitutional Court ruling was clear.

“Our people are smart. People know the process. We understand who intervened,” he said in an apparent attempt to deflect the blame from himself.

Meanwhile, Anies highlighted the importance of proper wages for everyone working in courts so that judges could work impartially to provide justice for everyone.

Prabowo agreed with Anies, saying it was important to strengthen judicial bodies with clear merit and an exam system for judges for a better Indonesia, and thus concluded this particular section of the debate.

But the tensions between Prabowo and Anies immediately reignited.

Picking up where they left off on the Constitutional Court, Anies asked how Prabowo “felt” when then chief justice Anwar Usman, who is his running mate Gibran’s uncle, was found guilty of an ethics breach for his role in the court’s ruling that paved the way for Gibran’s candidacy.

Read also: Chief Justice demoted over Gibran ruling

Refusing to acknowledge that there was any problem, Prabowo said that his legal team had assured him that Anwar’s ethics breach had nothing to do with his 2024 ticket.

“The point is, it’s the people who decide […] We’re not little children anymore, so come on, Mas Anies,” Prabowo said. “If they don’t like me, then they don’t have to vote for me. I have nothing to lose. I’m ready to die for this country.”

Pointing out that nepotism was a deep-rooted problem in the country, Anies responded by saying that the normalization of such practices was simply “annoying.”

“It’s this practice of nepotism that does not allow a meritocracy to flourish,” he said.

Holding firm on his none-of-my-business stance, Prabowo again insisted that only the people would get to decide through their ballots whether any foul play had indeed taken place.

“If we are found to be wrong, or if we have betrayed [the country], it is the people who will decide our punishment,” Prabowo concluded.

Political Analyst Firman Noor said that Anies performed well during the debate highlighting a clear vision in terms of reforming the country’s judicial system, being the only one who said he wanted to revoke the controversial 2019 amendment of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Law, which in many ways neutered the antigraft body.

Firman also felt that Ganjar was quite successful in answering questions from the panel and attacks from his opponents, especially in answering questions regarding Central Java’s high unemployment rate and criticism of his flagship program for farmers called Kartu Tani, which monitors access to subsidized fertilizer.

“Prabowo on the other hand, looked a little bit unprepared. Often answering questions vaguely, which works for the masses, but not for more educated voters,” Firman said.

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