Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Indonesian Presidential Debates and Campaign: an Overview

Having watched the five presidential debates between Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo and their political partners, here's a question that everyone should be asking: do these debates matter?

The answer, as usual, is yes and no. No, in that, in general, the debate is like preaching to the choir. Those who already supported Prabowo or Jokowi probably didn't change their mind.

It's far more important to define your opponent, and since the beginning of the race, Prabowo's team had done a great job. Prabowo's camp managed to put doubts in many people as to whether Jokowi is qualified to run the country, stressing the fact that Jokowi, as the governor of Jakarta, had not finished taking care of the problems in Jakarta.

There were also questions as to whether Jokowi was an independent agent or simply another spineless subordinate of Megawati, his party leader; and the latter was given credence in a thoughtless attack that stated Jokowi was only a party official. And not to mention all the black campaigns waged by Prabowo's supporters on Jokowi, such as Jokowi is really of Chinese descent and a Christian believer.

Even though Prabowo himself carried so much baggage, such as all the accusations that he was an abuser of human rights, Jokowi's team, unfortunately, was unable to effectively use the issue: they were incapable of making a strong case to many youths explaining why those events so far away in 1998 still matter today. In fact, most of the counterattacks from Jokowi's camp were carried out by the grass root volunteers, without much assistance from Jokowi's party, the PDI-P.

And this brings me to my initial question, whether the debate matters. Yes, the debates matter, because by winning the debates, Prabowo and Jokowi were able to gain momentum and mobilize their supporters, giving them talking points and galvanizing them. Of course, the undecideds could also be persuaded by strong performance of a candidate in the debate, though I suspect the majority of these people are politically apathetic, didn't care at all about the debates, and the majority of them won't vote. Still, with the election going down the wire, both candidates wanted to attract that sliver of voters, regardless how small the number really is.

The Strategy of Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa

The main goal of Prabowo Subianto was to present himself as a natural leader to the people, that he understood the big picture of what's wrong with Indonesia, and that he was the right person to fix it. As a result, he tended to focus on macro-level policies.

In addition, he had to dispel the accusation that he had a fiery temper, an anger management problem that made him unfit to become a president. At the same time, he also had to try to attract the undecideds, mostly notably President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself, who, despite of experiencing a freefall of his popularity, was still popular enough to help his party garner around 10% of the votes during the legislative election back in April.

Therefore, Prabowo spent the first debate trying to restrain himself while on a couple occasion, gave indirect praise to the Yudhoyono administration. Of course, the fact that his running mate, Hatta Rajasa, was the coordinating minister in Yudhoyono administration made it imperative that he had to defend Yudhoyono's record, lest he was shooting his running mate's foot, and in turn hurting his own performance.

The Strategy of Joko Widodo - Jusuf Kalla

On the other hand, Jokowi's main goal was to stop the bleeding that was caused by incessant attacks from Prabowo's camp regarding his qualifications. As a result, Jokowi tended to focus on micro-level policies, stressing the fact that he was a capable administrator running a can-do government that gets things done.

In addition, understanding the fact that Prabowo got the momentum and that Team Jokowi were slowly bleeding support due to disgruntled supporters, Jokowi decided to be very aggressive in the debates, especially in the first debate, in order to throw some red meat to his supporters. At the same time, though, Jokowi tried not to attack the Yudhoyono administration too directly, lest President Yudhoyono, incensed with the criticism, decided to throw his support to Prabowo.

A couple days before the fifth debate, the president did throw his support to Prabowo, leading to full scale attacks from both Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla on Prabowo and the current administration's policies.

This approach, however, was hampered by a few things. Overall, Jokowi was simply not good in the public debates, and in the fourth debate, Jusuf Kalla was sick, leading to uneven performances. At the same time, Prabowo himself seemed to be overconfident and didn't really take Jokowi seriously; perhaps this is a reason was unable to capitalize on the boost in momentum he had received entering the debates.

Leading to the July 9

Based on the result of the fifth debate, Jokowi retook the momentum, as his performance energized supporters. Yes, there are things outside his control that can help to mobilizing his base, notably the botched election process in Hong Kong, which regardless of whose fault was that, creates the impression that the system, the Election Commission, and even the government were doing their best to sink Jokowi's candidacy. Basically, the conventional wisdom has held that if Jokowi wins, it will be in spite of the poor performance of the PDI-P. But now, it might be driven by the energized and angry pool of grassroots voters.

At the same time, via campaign rallies and speeches and other forms of outreach, Prabowo has been drumming up his political bases. Importantly, at his disposal, Prabowo has had the political machines of various political parties, such as Partai Golkar, Partai Demokrat, Gerindra, PKS, PPP, and PAN, that back his candidacy (and including quite a lot of true believers who believe that Prabowo was unfairly tarred and feathered on the issue of human rights), as well as a huge warchest that he liberally spent for advertising and building up a very strong campaign team. Given these things, along with the polling trends over the last month or so, Prabowo has a shot at presidency.

The election will go down to the wire.

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