Sandiaga Uno emerged as the surprise star of the debate, displaying an ability to steer the conversation away from the Prabowo camp’s vulnerabilities on religious pluralism. Photo by Sigid Kurniawan for Antara.


President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin squared off against Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno last night in the first of five presidential debates. Each debate follows a different theme, with the first on law, human rights, corruption and terrorism. A new format was unveiled – candidates first answered questions from panellists, which had been given to them in advance. The two sides were then given the opportunity to pose questions to each other.


My five key takeaways:


1. President Jokowi outshone Prabowo on policy matters – reflecting incumbency advantage – but was surprisingly unprepared to defend his first-term track record. Questions on corruption and conflicting regulations provided Jokowi with the opportunity to speak on his pet themes of merit-based selection and streamlining procedures for business. Prabowo was unable to expand on an unconvincing platform of better wages for public officials to remove the temptation of corruption. Prabowo’s running mate Sandiaga landed the only clear policy blow for the evening against the Jokowi camp, when he asked Jokowi why voters should trust him to do better on legal uncertainty in a second five-year term. Jokowi could have rattled off a list of first-term achievements to counter such an attack – instead, he froze.


2. Prabowo’s running mate Sandiaga emerged as the real star of the debate. Sandiaga appeared charismatic and articulate, in a way that would appeal to young urban voters. Prabowo turned to him to speak often, and he was the only speaker to make full use of the time allocated to each candidate pair. He showed a deft ability to steer the debate away from the Prabowo camp’s vulnerability on religious pluralism. When asked to discuss discrimination in law enforcement against religious and ethnic minorities, Sandiaga instead recast discrimination as a problem of anti-poor bias. Where Prabowo often appeared as a stale candidate with little to offer beyond his familiar 2014 campaign themes, Sandi looked presidential by comparison.


3. Ma’ruf was mostly silent, but the Jokowi camp used him effectively to head off criticism that counter-terrorism efforts unfairly stigmatise Muslims. Jokowi deferred entirely to Ma’ruf to answer questions on terrorism, exploiting Ma’ruf’s unimpeachable Islamic credentials as a former head of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI). Ma’ruf offered a religious justification for firm action against terrorists and called for correction of “deviant” doctrine. This strategy appeared all the wiser as Prabowo turned conspiratorial in his own discussion of terrorism, saying many terrorists were sent by foreign countries, even by non-Muslims.


4. The questions from each camp to each other were the highlight of the debate, exposing a surprising inability from both sides to defend against predictable attacks. Prabowo floundered when asked by Jokowi why he had signed off on six legislative candidates who had been convicted of corruption for his party Gerindra. Jokowi similarly failed to defend his track record when asked to explain to voters why they should expect him to do better in a second term. More time for these questions would improve the remaining four debates.


5. Neither camp had much appetite to discuss law and human rights, steering discussion to economic matters whenever they could. Jokowi used his two questions to Prabowo for a clever attack on the lack of women in his party’s leadership and to question his commitment to anti-corruption. Nevertheless, Jokowi did use his closing statement to pointedly attack Prabowo personally on his human rights track record, leaving Prabowo no chance to respond.


Overall, in a debate that influential pollster Burhanuddin Muhtadi had highlighted as a key chance to influence an estimated quarter of the electorate who remain swing voters, each camp landed the blows they wanted to land.


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