The second debate: What are the right questions?

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Irawan Ronodipuro
INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – Presidential debates are tricky exercises.  If the format allows sufficient time for a candidate to air his views, if the questions posed give viewers a good sense of whether or not the person standing at the podium is worthy of holding higher office and, finally, if there is enough time given for the candidates to challenge each others positions, then the debate is an ideal way for voters to make up their minds about who they should vote for on election day.

Indonesia’s first presidential debate, held last month, was rightly criticized for being too rigid.  The candidates seemed almost robotic in their responses, and most viewers concluded they learned very little about their policy stances.  The time permitted for answering the moderator’s questions was a mere three minutes.  In the end, most people who tuned into the debate concluded it was a near draw, not because the candidates’ performances were equally good or bad, but rather because the way in the which the debate was held was, for the most part, quite poor.

As we near the second debate, there is hope something more exciting and educational will be offered on national television.  The National Election Commission, or KPU, has wisely changed the format by not disclosing the debate questions to the candidates beforehand, which should result in more spontaneity and therefore give viewers a better chance to see how the candidates compare in terms of their command of policy issues and their intellect.

Still, much will depend on the types of questions that will be posed before Mssrs. Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo.  If the KPU plays “softball” by giving easy-to-answer questions, then once again it will be difficult for Indonesia’s voters to have a chance to make a rational choice between the candidates.

If we had to make a prediction, we would place our bets on the KPU being soft rather than challenging.  Still, we can’t resist the temptation to pose the question, if this debate were to be more insightful, then what should the moderator ask?  Here are a few of our suggestions:

Natural Resources
One of the more widely covered, and contentious news items over the past year has been the national government’s acquisition of majority shares in the mining giant Freeport McMoRan Indonesia.  The Jokowi administration has said the acquisition will bring tremendous benefits to the economy.  Jokowi’s supporters have even gone further, saying no previous president had the guts to ‘take’ Freeport out of the hands of American majority shareholders.

Rhetoric aside, why don’t we focus on the facts?  Nobody ‘took’ Freeport.  Divestment was a requirement under the company’s contract of work, and a fair market price had to be paid, which was in the billions of dollars and financed in debt.  So the questions that need answering are based on the economics.   Mr. President, before the acquisition was undertaken, did anybody inside your administration bother to calculate the precise financial benefits and costs to the economy?  If so, how large are the net benefits? 

There is also a question of risk:  Freeport Indonesia will be undertaking an extensive expansion of an underground mine, an additional investment that will require billions of dollars and which is not without risk.   Mr. President, are you aware of those risks in being a shareholder in Freeport Indonesia?  Could you please share with us your assessment of those risks and how, taking those risks into account, could the acquisition could still be justified?  

   Then there is the not-so-insubstantial question of how the benefits are distributed.  Mr. President, we would like to know about how you envisage any profits that accrue in the future will be used.  The local shareholder of Freeport is Inalum, a state-owned enterprise.  Have you made any proposals about how any net profits might be used to further the national welfare?  And have you considered how those profits might be shared with the Papuans? 

Food Security
For many months there has been a raging debate on national television stations and the print media about the food import cartels.  The fact remains that many basic foods sold on the domestic market, such as sugar, are substantially above world market prices.  It is also a fact that the government regularly sets import quotas for those food products and then awards designated companies the sole right to import them.   Mr. President, your administration’s food import policies have been widely criticized.  Can you please give some examples of where you think those policies have benefitted consumers and cite some data to back your argument?   Secondly, do you think having cartels is the best way to ensure food security—couldn’t there be better ways for the government to ensure food supplies?

Questions over food security have, until now, focused primarily on the role of food cartels.  Yet very little has been said about the production side of the equation, namely how can we boost the productivity of local farmers which, compared to regional peers such as Thailand, is still far below our potential.  Finally, Mr. President, what has your government done so far to facilitate an increase in the output of domestic farms?  Can you name a few examples of your successes?  What else do you think needs to be done so we don’t have to rely upon imports of basic foods and, at the same time, increase the incomes of our farmers?

Infrastructure
One of Jokowi’s signature policies has been to spend lots of money, much more money, in fact, than his predecessors on infrastructure.   For sure, Indonesia in past years has not spent nearly enough on its infrastructure, and hopefully Jokowi’s push for big infrastructure will eventually pay dividends in terms of greater connectivity and productivity for the economy.

At the same time, practically nobody has posed questions about accountability.  Mr. President, numerous infrastructure projects have been either delayed or cancelled.  Has your administration looked into delayed projects and come up with any findings that could reasonably explain those delays?  Second, most of the infrastructure projects are being built with state funds—has your finance department conducted any audits to see if there been any irregularities and, if so, can you please provide us with your assessment on whether or not your government has done enough to detect and prevent ‘leakages’ in infrastructure projects?

   Finally, one of the key pillars of a modern infrastructure is telecommunications.  Yet very little has been said about the state-owned telecommunications operator, Telkom, and its role in developing 5G networks in the future.   Mr. President, there has been much news around the world about the Chinese telecoms company, Huawei, in its providing 5G technologies for operators in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.  Intelligence agencies are concerned about the security risks of using Huawei equipment, and as a consequence many governments have banned their operators from using Huawei for 5G.  Many others have called for a temporary hold on Huawei-related projects until a full security review is conducted.  Yet your government, under which Huawei is assigned to provide 5G equipment to Telkomsel, has virtually said nothing about this issue.  Could you please explain why and tell us what your government plans on doing, if anything, to address a risk that practically everybody else has been talking about?