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The country's first presidential debate devolves into a wild free-for-all of brutal politeness.
JAKARTA — The Indonesian population’s famous aversion for confrontation was spectacularly on display Thursday night during the country’s first ever presidential debate, which turned into a practice in politeness rather than a fiery exchange of ideas.
It was billed as an opportunity for voters to discover where each candidate stands on several hot-button issues, including human rights and clean governance. But the candidates instead spent two and half hours agreeing with each other, offering broad platitudes and little specifics.
The debate, in fact, was doomed before it began partly because of the country’s cultural pension for avoiding arguments, but also because the candidates asked for the crucial cross-examination and rebuttal segment to be jettisoned.
Although the night represented another step forward for Indonesia’s young democracy – only ten years ago the country was still ruled by Suharto, a brutal dictator – the debate accomplished little in the way of informing anyone about anything.
Several weeks into a presidential campaign season that lasts little more than a month, voters here still know very little about each candidate’s agenda. The electoral commission had hoped the debates, five in total, would help change that.
Incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his two challengers, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Yusuf Kalla, in fact, had so little to say that at one point the moderator was forced to cut to commercial because of excess time.
It was a major disappointment.
“The three candidates did their best to agree and when it came to areas where the three had differences, they did their best to gloss over them with banalities,” said Wimar Witoeler, a popular political commentator.
Indonesian politics during the last decade have always been more about personalities and party affiliations than agendas, issues and qualifications. Both Sukarnoputri, who is running for the second time, and Yusuf Kalla, have chosen former military generals accused of vast human rights abuses as their running mates.
Yudhoyono, however, during the portion of the debate about human rights, never mentioned it.
“The debates are supposed to be an opportunity to help the people make responsible and clever choices based on the candidate’s competency and agendas. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case this time,” said Mohammad Qodari, a political analyst and pollster who had high hopes leading up to the debate.