The first three debates have been criticised as ‘uninteresting, stiff and scripted’. Photo by Sigid Kurniawan for Antara.


Indonesian democracy throws up many contrasts. The public have repeatedly shown that they have little faith in the key pillars of democracy, such as political parties and the House of Representatives. Yet public trust in democracy itself remains high, and turnout in elections remains strong. How do we explain this puzzle?


Scholars suggest several factors are essential to the survival and deepening of democracy, for example, the presence of formal democratic institutions, accountability and transparency in democratic processes, and a consensus among elites to respect elections and democratic process as the only legitimate channels for changing leaders.


In countries like Indonesia, where liberal democratic values have been eroding significantly over recent years, the repetitive performance of democratic “rituals” is crucial. The regular displays of these rituals help to shape the identity of Indonesian citizens — who are mostly sidelined during non-election periods — as members of a democratic society. This constructed identity, in turn, provides legitimacy to Indonesia’s electoral democracy.


One of the most important rituals – beyond the elections themselves – is the regular presidential debates. But before we examine the debates in greater detail, it is important to take a closer look at the health of Indonesian democracy.

Paradoxes in Indonesian democracy

On the one hand, the public has a low level of trust toward pillars of Indonesia’s democracy. According to a survey by Charta Politika in 2018 in eight major cities in Indonesia, only 32.8 per cent of respondents said they trusted political parties, compared to 45.8 per cent who did not trust them. Further, in another survey by Charta Politika in 2019, only 0.6 per cent of respondents said that political parties had demonstrated good performance, and only 3.8 per cent said that the House of Representatives (DPR) was performing well.


Other key pillars of democracy, such as the Supreme Court and the Regional Representatives Council (DPD), also ranked lowly. Only the office of president received a relatively high appreciation rate. The lack of connection between voters and parties is also concerning – only 19.5 per cent of respondents said they identified with a political party. Corruption by legislative and party members is one cause of the low public trust toward political parties and the DPR.


Indonesia’s electoral process is also flawed. Money politics and distribution of patronage are common in both national and subnational elections. Meanwhile, the KPU is struggling with hoaxes and fake news and constant bickering with the Elections Monitoring Body (Bawaslu). These problems could cause public trust to further deteriorate.


On the other hand, despite the low level of public trust of democratic institutions, the Indonesian electorate is highly supportive of democracy. A recent survey by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) showed 73 per cent of respondents thought that democracy was the best system for the country, while 82 per cent said they believed Indonesia could be considered democratic.


Turnout in national and regional elections is also comparatively high. In 2014, turnout in legislative and presidential elections was 75.1 per cent and 69.6 per cent, respectively. Likewise, in the 2018 simultaneous regional elections, average voter turnout was 73.24 per cent. Although turnout has been declining, it is still higher than many other democracies, including advanced ones like the United States.

Presidential debates

The presidential debates play an important role in maintaining these positive results. The KPU scheduled five televised presidential debates in this election season. They cover the most pressing issues in Indonesia, from the economy, to human rights, education, health, and terrorism.


In each debate, candidates present their ideas on at least four general topics. For example, in the third debate on 17 March, the vice presidential candidates, Ma’ruf Amin and Sandiaga Uno, discussed their programs on education, health, human resources, and socio-cultural issues.


Each debate lasts for about two hours, including breaks between sessions. Typically, each candidate has four minutes to present an opening statement on a particular topic. This is followed by an approximately eight-minute long session, during which each candidate must answer a question from a panel of experts, as well as comment on the opponent’s answer. When the time is up, the debate moves on to the next topic. In the third session, candidates are allowed to question their opponent about policies or plans to tackle certain issues. Finally, each candidate delivers a closing statement.


Each debate presents a series of rituals, including singing the national anthem, reminders about the rules for the candidates and their supporters, a speech from the head of the KPU, and the repeated display of sealed envelopes containing the questions set by a panel of experts, to reinforce the transparency, accountability, and neutrality of the KPU. In the first two debates, the candidates selected the number of the envelope containing questions they would then answer, much like a beauty pageant.


Given the limited time available for the discussion of complex issues, an apparent unwillingness to engage in fierce criticism, and the “unnecessary” rituals and debate policies set by the KPU, the first three debates disappointed many pundits and activists. Observers argue that the debates have lacked substance – the candidates did not exchange arguments but merely restated “old and recycled” policy rhetoric. As scholar Budi Irawanto said, the debates were “uninteresting, stiff, and scripted”.

Public screenings

Despite these disappointments, the debates remain necessary for the maintenance of Indonesia’s electoral democracy. The unnecessary rituals, the rather naïve rhetoric by the KPU chairman, the question and answer and debate sessions, and the public discussions after each debate all help to shape the identity of Indonesian people as members of a democratic society, however illusory that democratic identity may be. They create a sense of excitement and belonging in the electorate.


Voters, however, are not passive recipients of these performative acts. The debates are important because for a brief moment during the long election season, voters feel that they are engaged in democracy. Many voters anticipate each debate, what the candidates will say, how they will attack their opponents and defend themselves. They do this despite knowing that the candidates will inevitably disappoint them, no matter who wins. Nevertheless, voters enthusiastically discuss the performance of the candidates during and after each debate.


This enthusiasm was on show during public screenings of the second and third presidential debates. Watching these debates was like attending public screenings of World Cup matches. In one public screening organized by the Jakarta branch of a political party, a pop/dangdut cover band played songs between debate sessions. At another event, held by an online publication, independent experts, as well as representatives from the Jokowi-Ma’ruf and Prabowo-Sandi camps, were on hand to offer their perspectives on the topics covered and the performance of the candidates.


Attendees showed varying levels of engagement. Dedicated supporters of either candidate were hanging on their every word. Others who did not appear to support a particular candidate followed the speeches while occasionally checking their phones. But all attendees clapped and cheered when the candidates launched their attacks and booed when they could not answer a question properly.


For a brief moment, these debates increase public interest in politics among people who otherwise might ignore what politicians say in the media. When election day comes, a large number of them will cast their votes. Collectively, therefore, their presence, the opportunities for participation they provide, and the discourse surrounding them give meaning and legitimacy to Indonesia’s electoral democracy.


Perhaps we should give the presidential debates more credit than pundits generally give them. We should see the role of the presidential debates as events that produce performative effects with the potential to maintain Indonesian electoral democracy in the years to come.


To be sure, performative acts like debates are no guarantee that the quality of Indonesia’s democracy will improve after the elections. And the presence of debates does nothing to affect the substantial problems with Indonesia’s democracy, including the state’s absence in the protection of minorities, impunity for past human rights abuses, and the poor quality of basic education. Notably these are issues that have yet to receive adequate (or any) attention from the presidential candidates.


But it is possible to appreciate events like the presidential debates from a different perspective, however banal their content. These kinds of performative acts offer few solutions to the most pressing problems in Indonesia, and will disappoint those with high expectations of the candidates. Yet presidential debates remain necessary rituals if we want to maintain Indonesia’s democracy as the only system for electing the country’s leaders.


Without a repetitive display of democratic rituals, the legitimacy of Indonesia’s democracy will further erode towards authoritarianism.



Yoes C Kenawas would like to thank Sindhunata Hargyono and Bahram Naderil for their feedback in the process of writing this article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Northwestern University or the Atma Jaya Institute of Public Policy.


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