My take on the second Presidential Candidate debate

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J. Soedradjad Djiwandono

IO – One of the interesting phenomena of the second presidential candidates’ debate for me was that almost immediately after it went off the air, there was a flurry of commentary, analyses, notes and gossip, first floating around the social media, but soon followed by coverage in the newspapers and television channels. Nothing seemed to be left unravelled or untouched. However, I would still like to contribute to the discussion with this exposition. The issues I would like to touch upon here relate to those which became public in October of last year, after both pairs of candidates (Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo Subianto-Salahuddin Sandiaga Uno) completed their registration.

As early as the second week of October 2018 the mass media began to report news, analyses and commentaries about issues related to the Presidential Election to be held on April 17, 2019. One of the issues debated (as many may recall) was that commentators, scholars, as well as campaign spokesmen for Candidate 01 characterized Presidential Candidate Prabowo’s campaign style and slogans as taking their cues from President Trump’s successful style. They argued that Prabowo’s statements on several occasions “to make Indonesia great again” and his being nationalistic and temperamental were all similar to those of President Trump.  Responding to such a characterization, Prabowo’s campaign team along with ardent supporters (this writer included) presenting their respective ways and arguments on different occasions, adamantly refuted the characterization.

The above characterization was raised again at a luncheon of the USINDO Special Open Forum Luncheon Series on Indonesia’s 2019 Presidential Election, held in Washington DC, at which, like the last presidential candidates’ debate, I was fortunate enough to be present. Held on February 5, 2019, Mr. Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Vice Chairman of Gerindra Party’s Supreme Leadership Council and the younger brother of Mr. Prabowo, was the sole speaker. Hashim’s presentation focused on the Prabowo-Sandi Campaign Platform and other issues of the coming Presidential and General Elections. It was an excellent presentation and well-received by the audience at a fully-packed USINDO building.

During the Q and A period, a journalist in the audience raised a question, asking the speaker to comment on the characterization that Prabowo’s campaign style and slogan replicated President Trump’s 2016 campaign. Of course, the eloquent Hashim politely declined to provide any answer to such a loaded query. I think the seasoned politician side of Hashim decided against spoiling an otherwise very open, serious and excellent discussion with an audience of well-informed diplomats, academics and regulars at embassy row events to deal seriously with such an obviously baited question. In fact it was nothing of substance. I bring it up here solely to point out that the characterization lingers on.

Of course, it is no secret that the Prabowo-Sandy campaign team and its supporters despise such a caricature. It was reported in the Sunday Morning Herald (October 20, 2018) that “The comment – made by Dr. Marcus Mietzner of ANU that Prabowo was a Trump-like figure: impulsive, populist, erratic and with authoritarian tendencies – drew an angry response from Prabowo’s campaign team at the time”. Hashim Djojohadikusumo, as the Director of Media and Communication for the campaign and Irawan Ranodipuro, the team’s Director of Foreign Affairs, offered further arguments along this line during a briefing for foreign journalists, arguing that the reverse is more likely, i.e., that Mr Trump emulated us.

Here I would not only reiterate our rejection of such a characterization, but also wish to state that Candidate Joko Widodo (Jokowi) is in fact the one harbouring a Trump-like streak. In the wake of the second presidential candidates’ debate, many revelations that much of the data and information he cited were immediately shown to be inaccurate or even wrong, some social media commentators bestowed upon him the sobriquet “King of Hoaxes”.

The resemblance is sharply clarified once we compare how Candidate Joko Widodo cited detailed data immediately disputed by different groups, citing official government data published by his own administration. To point out only a few of these claims: data related to total length of village roads built during his administration, size of the purported reduction in corn imports and increases in the domestic harvest, how many cases brought against corporations violating environmental regulations were brought, and how his administration successfully fined such companies – or his claim that over the last two years there have been no forest fires nor any social disputes related to land clearing, since the government was “sharing gains” instead of “incurring losses”, along with other matters.

The above story strikes a familiar chord, similar to what we read in the news regarding the justifications of President Trump, declaring a “national emergency” to ensure the security of US citizens living along the border with Mexico from a potential invasion of criminal immigrants. He argued that in El Paso, Texas public safety was terrible prior to the erection of a wall, becoming secure only after he built it. My understanding is that by declaring a national emergency the President has the power to access the budget to finance the building of a wall without Congressional approval.  In the event it turned out that President Trump’s citation of statistics about security and safety indicators in El Paso as a case study was immediately repudiated and challenged by none other than the Mayor of El Paso and a Representative of the Texas State Legislature.

Similarly, almost immediately after the debate Presidential Candidate Joko Widodo was accused of citing erroneous data and information in demonstrating his past achievements or attacking his opponent. Social media as well as newspapers and television channels came up with reports and statements made by credible sources, revealing the inaccuracy of data and faulty information spelled out in the debate.

The discussion continues. For instance, regarding Candidate Joko Widodo’s personal attack against Candidate Prabowo concerning the latter’s purported land ownership in Kalimantan and Aceh, possibly to contrast his own claims to be fighting for the poor or to question the way Prabowo acquired the lands. To the dismay of some of his own supporters, Prabowo did not punch back nor deny this. Only in his closing remarks did Prabowo politely offer a correction, reiterating that it is not land ownership, but the right of use of the land, and that the land remains the property of the Indonesian government. This is the essence of Prabowo’s comment on Jokowi’s statement about his program of distributing land certificates to the poor. Prabowo said that even if this is all right (in terms of helping the poor); he argued that this program cannot continue, since our land is finite in area while our population steadily keeps increasing. A solid argument which was not touched upon by Jokowi; instead, he struck out at Prabowo on his purported land ownership, an issue which has no relevance to the discussion at all.  That is why I conclude that there is nothing wrong to think that the mention of this alleged “land ownership” must be for a different reason, namely, a smear is the one I would point to.

However, the effort to smear Prabowo has been a complete failure, if one follows the public discussions on this issue thereafter. None other than the Vice President Yusuf Kalla, on the morning after the debate, clarified by issuing a statement that he was the one signing the right for Prabowo to use the land in Kalimantan, which the latter acquired in cash, purchased from the bank restructuring agency (IBRA) as part of the bank restructuring program related to the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis. Kalla’s statement was not the only one: former minister of State Enterprise Dahlan Ikhsan also declared that Prabowo’s land in Aceh had been used by local Acehnese to support their livelihoods, at the same time a representative of those families benefitting focused their anger on President Jokowi for attacking Prabowo on this matter.  Now it is revealed to the public that Prabowo does not in fact own that land, but rather possesses the right of use, while the lands remain in the hands of the government. He acquired all those rights legally, not via illicit deals. It is even revealed that some of these lands were farmed by a number of families, and even made use of by local governments. On top of all this it was revealed that all these years Prabowo has been paying the taxes associated with the right of use of the land.

In addition, both President Trump and Candidate Joko Widodo seem to be facing legal challenging in court, even if they are different in nature. The news has detailed how 16 US States have filed suit against “national emergency” claimed by President Trump to be able to finance the building of wall along the border with Mexico. Local people sued President Trump in court for the use of their lands to build the wall.  In Indonesia, a group of lawyers filed complaints with the election supervisory body (Bawaslu) for the dissemination of incorrect data, which constitutes a hoax by Candidate Joko Widodo to make his points during the debate.

I would like to close this column with a note regarding the arrangement of the “debate” itself. I cannot help but think that all the confusion which led to accusations by and from both camps of the candidates, as well as commentators, must be laid at the door of the debates themselves, which are not blameless. To list their faults: first, the format of the debate. Many observers are of the opinion that the debate has side-lined its own objectives, such as enabling the public to comprehend contestants’ views regarding the future of Indonesia, and how they would lead our nation in achieve these and other goals. By placing more importance on the form of the debate than on its substance, we failed to receive what we need to know to make our decision at the polls. The format of the debate is more like a television game show, complete with picking numbers from bowls of predetermined questions, the choice of moderators: all are typical TV show stunts, not suitable for a presidential candidates’ debate. Secondly, on the one hand the rules are very rigid, such as one and two minute limits – rules for discussing such important topics and issues, which is strange to say the least. Meanwhile, the moderators do not always follow their own rules. For my taste, they did treat the candidates evenly, in terms of fairness. The worst mistake of the moderators was not keeping the debate orderly. If a candidate violated a rule of debate the moderator should intervene; if a candidate failed to answer a question raised by the other candidate a moderator should intervene and press the issue. This did not happen. I still cannot fathom why the conventional format of debate, similar to what was arranged in 2014, had to be replaced by this inferior format.