Indonesian presidential rivals clash in 1st debate

AP News
Posted: Jun 10, 2014 4:50 AM
Indonesian presidential rivals clash in 1st debate

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A Suharto-era general running for the Indonesian presidency was forced to defend his human rights record during the first televised debate of the campaign — a contest many observers thought was won by his opponent, former Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo.

Opinion polls since April parliamentary elections have shown the general, Prabowo Subianto, closing the gap on the back of a well-drilled campaign, but still trailing Widodo by around 10 points. The polls, considered reliable, also show many millions of undecided voters, meaning the July 9 polls in Southeast Asia's largest economy could still be tight.

Many thought the first debate might play into one of Prabowo's main advantages — a perception that Widodo, a former furniture salesman known for his down-to-earth demeanor and known as "Jokowi," might lack leadership credentials or public speaking skills.

Both candidates appeared nervous at times and their answers often meandered painfully, but it was clear that Widodo's performance in Monday night's debate in front of a raucous audience was as accomplished if not better than Subianto's.

"It is hard to be truly neutral in such a decisive election season, but any objective analysis would have to conclude that Jokowi and his running mate Jusuf Kalla more than stood their ground in the debate," wrote Meidyatama Suryodiningrat in The Jakarta Post.

Subianto's campaign team acknowledged the candidate "wasn't that relaxed" but promised an improved performance in following debates. "In the next sessions he will convincingly show he is the firmest leader, and the best leader for this country," said campaign spokesman Sudrajat, who goes by a single name.

Widodo has won plaudits for his leadership of Jakarta. He has attempted to tackle traffic congestion and flooding, rolled out a new health insurance program and started construction on a long-awaited subway line.

While most of debate was taken up with platitudes, Jokowi's running mate, former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, challenged Subianto over allegations he abducted pro-democracy activists in 1998 at the end of three decades of hardline rule by Suharto. Subianto has never been charged, but the country's human right's commission still regards him as a suspect.

Subianto appeared flustered and said: "I am a former soldier who has done his duty as best as I can."

Subianto was widely reviled in aftermath of the Suharto rule. He was accused of attempting to stage a coup and instigating deadly riots and was discharged from the army. But this background is not a problem for many Indonesians now. Indeed, his perceived "firmness" is his major selling point.

Neither candidate has said much about what kind of policies they will implement when in office, but both have stressed they are committed to combating religious extremism and intolerance, as well as keeping Indonesia's economy open to foreign investment.