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.
The presidential campaign in general has been lackluster, partly because opinion polls regularly show Yudhoyono laps ahead of the others.
But if the current climate in Iran is any indication, a lively debate could have far reaching implications. Presidential debates in the United States and elsewhere have often changed the course of a stagnant campaign.
Yudhoyono is not infallible. Though he is admired for his pensive demeanor, he is also considered slow in making important decisions – hence Kalla’s campaign slogan, “Faster and Better.”
Yudhoyono is also under pressure for not resolving a three year old un-natural disaster that has displaced tens of thousands of people in East Java. In 2006, a drilling company punctured the earth, giving birth to a mud volcano that spreads daily. The company is indirectly controlled by Yudhoyono’s minister of people’s welfare Aburizal Bakrie – an irony everyone sees.
But when the mud disaster came up in the debate last night, neither Sukarnoputri nor Kalla took the opportunity to chide the president for his lack of action. Kalla instead rambled about infrastructure.
Sukarnoputri, who is the daughter of Sukarno, a founding father who helped defeat the Dutch, inexplicably pumped her first and yelled, “independence!” at the end of her ambling valediction.
And so it remains a mystery as to where each candidate stands on crucial issues like the economy, poverty alleviation, corruption, the environment and human rights.
During the campaign so far, the most heated exchanges have been over the meaning of “neo-liberalism,” a classification flung at Yudhoyono and his running mate Boediono, an independent economist. The candidates also spent a week justifying their vast stores of personal wealth.
“It is difficult to know where anyone stands,” said Qodari. “The economy is getting more attention from voters. But the campaigns are fighting over who is a neo-liberal. I don’t see how that can impact anyone. Most voters don’t understand what the term even means.”
The country’s electoral commission has assigned itself the difficult task of forcing candidates and voters to consider relevant issues. Before parliamentary elections in April, the commission tried to ban political rallies, an election staple, because they are rarely used to clarify stances and are really just a competition to see who can pay the most people to attend.
Now, it is the commission’s hope that the series of U.S.-style, televised, presidential debates, each one focused on a particular issue, will help.
The candidates took a beating in the morning papers for their “boring” performances on Thursday. Fortunately they have four more opportunities before the July 9 election.
Indonesian democracy marches on.
More on democracy in Indonesia:
Indonesia waits as votes are counted
Indonesia's next president?
A murder trial verdict provides little closure