Last TV debate 'may swing some voters towards Jokowi'

Over five weekends, the presidential candidates and their running mates sparred and parried over issues that ranged from human rights to border disputes and the country's cattle supply.

These live televised debates, watched by tens of millions of people nationwide, were meant for 190 million voters to see for themselves whether Mr Joko Widodo, commonly called Jokowi, and Mr Prabowo Subianto have what it takes for the highest office in the land: Do they have a grasp of the country's major challenges, and are their solutions and programmes workable?

Observers say the jury is still out on the extent to which these debates will sway undecided and swing voters with just days before Wednesday's vote.

But last Saturday night's debate on energy, food and the environment saw Mr Joko and his running mate Jusuf Kalla trump their opponents. It could also swing some undecided voters their way.

Recent opinion polls put the number of undecided voters at between 10 per cent and 20 per cent, and they could play a critical role given that Mr Joko's lead over Mr Prabowo has thinned to between 3 and 7 percentage points, and the election is seen by many observers as being too close to call.

University of Indonesia academic Vishnu Juwono feels that Mr Joko's credible performance, especially during last Saturday's debate, will help sway urban voters who doubted his knowledge of national issues. "Jokowi showed his mastery of the issues of agriculture, energy and the environment, which successfully showed that he is now prepared to be the national leader, not just a regional leader," he said.

Last Saturday, Mr Joko and Mr Kalla deployed the same tactic they used in the first debate - putting their opponents on the defensive. Mr Kalla, noting a speech Mr Prabowo made on kleptocracy and taking a dig at recent graft scandals hitting his coalition partners, said: "In our coalition, there is no oil, rice or beef mafia. Who are you targeting when you say there is kleptocracy in this country?"

Tripped up, Mr Prabowo replied: "I'm not saying there is no thief in my party."

Paramadina University political scientist Djayadi Hanan told The Straits Times that the debates have tended to confirm voters' support for the candidates they back.

"Many in the middle-class still seem to think Jokowi is not presidential enough," he said. But he noted that Mr Prabowo's firm supporters also felt he did better in the debates.

Mr Joko and Mr Kalla were widely judged to have won the first debate on the issue of democracy, governance and rule of law over Mr Prabowo and his running mate Hatta Rajasa.

But when Mr Joko faced off against Mr Prabowo in the second and third debates on the economy, and defence and foreign policy, the latter won points for style while the former fared better on substance.

In the 2004 and 2009 elections, the debates between the candidates appeared to make only a marginal impact on the race.

Mr Vishnu said that this year, it is difficult to tell if they will change the perception of rural voters who might still be swayed by last-minute vote-buying.

Yesterday was the first of three cooling-off days when campaigning is prohibited.

Mr Joko and his family went on a minor pilgrimage to Mecca, as he had before previous polls he contested. They will return tomorrow.

Mr Prabowo's campaign team said he will be in the Jakarta area attending "light gatherings" like the breaking of fast with the community.

This article was first published on July 07, 2014.
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