INDONESIA - The first televised debate between contenders of the upcoming presidential election got off to a feistier than expected start, with Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo and his running mate Jusuf Kalla coming out more strongly against their opponents, former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Hatta Rajasa.
Over two hours yesterday evening, both pairs answered questions on how they would uphold democracy and the rule of law, and improve governance and respect for diversity.
While the general tone of the debate was cordial, Mr Joko, commonly known as Jokowi, and Mr Kalla surprised many with their energy and their taking subtle digs at their opponents' weak points and track record.
"People already think Prabowo is a better speaker than Jokowi," Dr Philips Vermonte of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies told The Straits Times. "Jokowi has to maintain his performance."
The televised debates organised by the Election Commission have been a key campaign fixture since Indonesians began directly electing their president in 2004.
This year, however, is the first time there are only two pairs of candidates from the start.
And with approval ratings for the two teams showing signs of narrowing as the election on July 9 nears, observers say the four other debates taking place over the coming weeks could prove crucial.
Latest polls show Mr Joko maintaining a 10 percentage point lead over Mr Prabowo - 47.5 per cent to 36.9 per cent - with the rest undecided.
Yesterday's debate began with moderator Zainal Mochtar of Gadjah Mada University's corruption studies centre asking both pairs of candidates what would top their agenda when it comes to democracy, clean governance and rule of law.
Mr Prabowo replied by saying that Indonesia's democracy still had its shortcomings, but that he would work hard to see a clean government and uphold the rule of law for every citizen.
Mr Hatta added: "A Prabowo-Hatta government will ensure everyone is treated equally before the law."
But Mr Joko recounted his experience visiting villages and riverbanks to talk to residents and ask about their needs, saying: "Democracy is the right of every citizen."
Mr Kalla went a step further, taking a dig at Mr Prabowo's controversial human rights record. He was discharged from the military in 1998 for abducting political activists.
"Leaders have to lead by example. When they talk about human rights, they have to respect human rights," Mr Kalla said.
Mr Joko also said he would continue with the long-term plans drawn up by the outgoing administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that have worked.
But he hit out at what many saw as a key weakness of the current government, saying: "Planning is important, but implementation and execution are also important... in our country, management and monitoring are weak."
Mr Kalla, who was Dr Yudhoyono's vice-president from 2004 to 2009, said the efficiency of government as well as areas such as education had to be improved.
Mr Prabowo made a controversial point when he said corruption happens in Indonesia because officials are afraid for their future. Making a reference to low pay, he said: "If we want to fight corruption, we have to preserve the quality of life of our officials: judges, policemen, civil servants."
The debate also saw Mr Kalla grill Mr Prabowo on his human rights record, referring to his abduction of political activists before the downfall of then President Suharto in 1998. Human rights, Mr Prabowo replied, was also about protecting people from threats.
"In our neighbour, Singapore, just holding a bomb gets you the death penalty," he said. "My conscience is clear. I was defending the most fundamental right in this country."
This article was first published on June 10, 2014.
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