The first Indonesian Presidential Debate of 2019: a review

The first Presidential Debate was concluded on 17 January 2019. In the debate, centering on issues of human rights, corruption, law enforcement, and terrorism, both parties did not perform satisfyingly, but Joko Widodo could be said to have won by a slight margin.

In this post, I’ll do a thematic blow-by-blow of the debate with added commentary.

The teams’ visions and missions

The first session of the debate was allocated for the iteration of each candidate’s Vision and Mission statements. Jokowi ran on the tagline “Indonesia Maju” (Prosperous Indonesia), which emphasizes optimism and justice. In line with this, Jokowi’s programs mostly include widespread institutional reform and bolstering institutional synergy. In turn, this would address the root cause of corruption, human rights violations, and counter-terrorism. On the other side, Prabowo ran with the tagline “Indonesia Menang” (Indonesia Wins), which emphasizes sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and strong state institutions. He specifically acknowledged the need to increase the welfare of bureaucrats within the system, citing financial insecurity as the root cause of corrupt behaviour.

Right off the bat, we see the stark difference between the two candidates. Jokowi’s narrative is more upbeat and consistent with his current infrastructure investment, whereas Prabowo’s narrative has not changed since 2014. In some ways, Indonesia Menang bears a striking resemblance to “America First”, especially in its xeno-sceptic undertones.

For a more complete overview of the Vision and Missions, refer to KataData.

On corruption

The centerpiece of the first debate was the issue of corruption. Candidates discussed an age-old and resistant problem of Indonesian politics: corruption. The candidates, however, had starkly diverging views on how to address corruption, with Jokowi in favour of more transparency and accountability, while Prabowo continued to emphasize the need to eliminate a sense of perceived financial security among the political elite as a requisite for eliminating corruption.

The first question of the moderated session touched on the high costs of becoming a civil servant in Indonesia. This has often been touted as the cause of rent-seeking behaviour and patronage politics among civil servants; they’re in it to make a quick buck. To address this, Jokowi pledges to increase transparency and accountability in the civil service selection and recruitment process, though not specifically explaining how. He does bring up the case of his own son, who did not pass the civil service exam, to emphasize his will for reform. In his response, Prabowo cited that the salary of a governor was around IDR 8 million (the actual figure, according to legislation, is around IDR 8.4 million: IDR 3 million in salary and IDR 5.4 million in benefits and perks). He lamented the figure, saying it was insufficient. He then made a fallacious statement, stating the province of Central Java is larger than Malaysia (reality check: it’s the other way around). He then called for breakthroughs to increase the salaries of the civil service.

The same “civil service needs more money” returns in the second question of the moderated session which touches on bureaucratic reform. Prabowo kicked off by re-emphasizing the need to increase the salaries of the civil service. He made a proposal to “increase the tax ratio by 16%” (the real tax ratio has been fluctuating between 11-13%, according to Finance Minister Sri Mulyani). He also advocated “harsh punishment” for corruptors, hinting that they may be sent into exile on a small island and be forced to mine sand (Jakarta Post’s Instagram account even used the word “gulag” to describe Prabowo’s policy). Then, Prabowo vowed to increase operational funding for the Anti-Corruption Agency. Jokowi responded by noting his disagreement with Prabowo. Jokowi believes the civil service is already well-paid due to their hefty perks and benefits. To address the deep-seated corrupt culture, Jokowi advocates for more bureaucratic streamlining, a merit-based promotion and recruitment system, and increased internal and external monitoring. In the last rebuttal, Prabowo mentioned that fears of financial insecurity will continue to exist, and Sandiaga brought up the need for an IT-based monitoring system.

Evident in this exchange is Prabowo’s insistence on enriching the civil service. He does not, however, have a clear proposal on how to enrich them. The “tax ratio” which he mentions reflects the percentage of the state’s GDP financed by taxes. A high tax ratio indicates lower tax evasion. It does not necessarily mean Prabowo will enact new taxes. Therefore, to increase the tax ratio, Prabowo would also need to enact significant reforms in tax collection, something that Sri Mulyani (Jokowi’s current finance minister) is already working hard on. Inadvertently, Prabowo shoots himself in the foot here, since Sandiaga’s name was on the Panama Papers.

The impromptu session, however, put the nail in the coffin for Prabowo.  

In the first question, Prabowo questions conflicts of interests in Jokowi’s cabinet. He accuses some of Jokowi’s ministers of having conflicts of interests with the rice cartel, noting that despite some of the ministers saying there are enough rice reserves, there are other ministers who insist on importing more rice. Jokowi defends himself by stating that such differences are normal, and any executive decision would need to be decided through a proper meeting.

Prabowo demonstrates ineptitude here. By using the rice cartel accusation, it shows he does not understand how a cabinet works.

The second question was even more of a direct attack from Jokowi’s side. Jokowi brought up an Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW; an NGO working in anti-corruption efforts) report indicating a number of ex-convicts indicted with corruption charges that are present in Gerindra and are running for office. By recent electoral laws, ex-convicts are allowed to run for parliament, but are subject to strict verification rules. Prabowo claims he has not read the ICW report and claims that its findings are “subjective”. The rest of the exchange was them slinging mud, but Prabowo made a blunder by overlooking the ex-convicts’ past transgressions, brushing them off as “nothing much”. By saying such, Prabowo implicitly condones corruption.

On law enforcement

Much of the discussion around law enforcement revolved around legal certainty and issues of legal structure.

The first question of the moderated session asked candidates on how they would solve the issue of overlapping and redundant regulations which has been a meme of the Indonesian legal system.

Prabowo iterated the need for a national legal development agency which would bring in legal experts to harmonise laws at the central and local levels. Sandiaga also highlighted the need for public participation in discussing these laws, which he managed to link back to improvement of jobs and foreign investment. However, Jokowi, while agreeing that harmonization ought to be done, he offered a more centralized solution: most legislative functions at the ministerial level would be under a Central Legislation Agency (Pusat Legislasi Nasional) which would be overseen by the President. This would decrease red tape significantly and streamline the process.

Prabowo, in this case, makes a decent case for the need to involve the public in discussing laws. Jokowi, on the other hand, raises some eyebrows when he insists on creating such a concentrated system. This brings back flashbacks of pre-Reformation Indonesia.

The second question of the moderated session asks the candidates whether human rights or legal action ought to be prioritised. The question here refers to an assumption (or is it more political rhetoric?) that law enforcement agencies often neglect the perpetrator’s basic human rights when carrying out arrests. Jokowi kicks off with saying that such two things shouldn’t be at odds with each other. Each act of enforcement, so long as it has sufficient legal backing, is a legitimate procedure, and if there are any grievances, Jokowi points out there are established legal mechanisms to report misconduct. Prabowo then accuses law enforcement agents of having “double standards” in conducting arrests, but Jokowi then also points out the Ratna Sarumpaet incident, where a Prabowo supporter was allegedly assaulted by Jokowi supporters yet the police did not act upon it. It turns out later that the assault was a hoax.

In this second question, neither of the candidates displayed a satisfying answer to the issue. Instead, it was used by Jokowi to land a sick burn to the other team. But then, this is not what rational debate should be about.

On human rights

Human rights was perhaps a dominant feature in the first round, second only to corruption. In both moderated and impromptu sessions, the candidates wrestled with issues of women’s rights and disabled rights, along with ensuring welfare. This is an awkward topic for both, especially Prabowo, who has a pretty spotty human rights record; and Jokowi, who has failed to seek justice for the victims of the Semanggi tragedy in 1998 and the assassination of human rights activist, Munir.

The first human rights question addressed the issue of persecution and discrimination which have been rampant in the last 5 years. Prabowo kicked off by announcing the need for further anti-discrimination training for law enforcement agents, yet did not provide details as to how this will be achieved. Sandiaga chimed in with a story of a fisher who was criminalized, but he did not dive into details. In response, Jokowi delivered a message of equality for all, invoking the term ukhuwah Islam. If anything bad happens on the ground, his message was to simply “report it”.

Both sides did not manage to deliver satisfying answers. However, what is notable here is Sandi’s pro-people message, which seems to be at odds with Prabowo’s idea of enriching bureaucrats. On the other hand, Jokowi’s invocation of the Islamic terminology is an attempt to project himself as a pro-Islam leader.

The second human rights question centered on the rights of the disabled. For a long time, the rights of the disabled community in Indonesia have long been overlooked; however, this has changed in 2016 when the government enacted Law no. 8/2016 regarding People with Disabilities [PDF]. Jokowi kicked off by mentioning this Law as an achievement, claiming that a “paradigm change” has happened in regards to people with disabilities. He goes on to highlight that people with disabilities are enjoying more equality, as shown in the equal distribution of bonuses in the Asian Para Games. In response, Sandiaga tells a story of Dewantara, a person with disabilities who managed to open up job opportunities. He argued that people with disabilities need not be “shown pity” but be empowered. Jokowi shrugged off Sandi’s rebuttal, insisting that people with disabilities have already been guaranteed equal rights. Ma’aruf Amin chimes in, highlighting the need to build a culture that is respectful towards people with disabilities.

Jokowi manages to defend using his own achievements. However, whether a “paradigm change” has occurred is still contestable. Facilities for people with disabilities have indeed improved, but this is still centered in highly urban and developed parts of the archipelago. To take a case in Jakarta, the TransJakarta buses have been slowly adapting to cater to the needs of people with disabilities, but these changes are mediocre at best; it’s still difficult for paraplegics to access TransJakarta bus stops. Sandiaga, on the other hand, is right that people with disabilities need to be empowered, however his view that they can only be empowered through work reflects his capitalist biases. A job may help someone develop a sense of agency, however, the government also needs to find other ways so people with disabilities can enjoy similar rights with regular people. Both, however, do not manage to address the issue of discrimination.

The impromptu session on human rights was a bit more entertaining, with candidates wrestling with issues of women’s rights and access to legal certainty.

The first question was launched by Jokowi and it was a direct attack on Prabowo’s political party, Gerindra. Jokowi questioned Prabowo’s commitment to gender equality, highlighting the fact that many strategic positions in Gerindra were not filled by women. Prabowo, staggering, explained that his party was relatively young and they recruited willing people. Even then, he claims that his party is working to achieve the threshold of 30% women participation. Jokowi responded simply by claiming that his cabinet consists of 9 women in ministerial positions, overseeing many of the nation’s affairs. Prabowo then argued that Jokowi’s female ministers made detrimental policies, policies that “harm the people”, and that gender should not be an issue.

Prabowo clearly struggled with the issue of gender equality and made a grave mistake of accusing Jokowi’s female cabinet members of not doing a good job. The reality is the exact opposite; public opinion of Jokowi’s female ministers, especially Susi Pudjiastuti (the “blow up the ships” lady) and Sri Mulyani (the “we’re coming for your taxes” lady), have been quite positive.

The second question was launched by Sandiaga. He questioned Jokowi’s solution to Indonesia’s legal mess which creates difficulties in developing small businesses. Jokowi simply replied that he would conduct sweeping reviews of such legislation at the regional level and punish naughty bureaucrats to ensure equality of access. However, in the rebuttal, Prabowo emphasized the need for immediate action and not long-term solutions.

This was a stale debate, mostly because Sandiaga clearly tries to steer the debate into his narrative of helping small business. This brings the debate away from human rights (though the right to equality of legal access is indeed a fundamental right). Prabowo also does not help and decides to press on the perceived failures of the current regime, a weak tactic that was shrugged off by Jokowi.

Both candidates, therefore, seem to not have a coherent human rights agenda and resorted to finding weak spots to spit sick burns.

On terrorism

Terrorism did not enjoy much screen time in the debate, leading to an unsatisfactory discussion between the candidates. In this theme, Jokowi showed himself to be more knowledgeable on counterterrorism efforts compared to Prabowo.

The first moderated question touched on counterterrorism efforts which clashed with human rights. Amin answered the question by touting his Majelis Ulama Indonesia credentials, stating that MUI had already issued a fatwa condemning acts of terror. He further emphasized the need for more counter- and de-radicalization efforts, though not really noting what has been done. In response, Prabowo touted his ex-Special Forces credentials and makes the argument that terrorists are proxy agents sent by external parties to weaken Indonesia. He supports deradicalization, but does not further specify. In the last rebuttal, Jokowi picks up the pace by showing how Indonesia’s deradicalization efforts have been an example for other countries. He further notes that law enforcement agents will be trained in human rights awareness and “persuasive” counterterrorism skills.

Prabowo here demonstrates a one-sided understanding of terrorism. Having been heavily involved in military-oriented counterterrorism efforts in the New Order, such an answer is to be expected. What is even more striking is his observation of terrorists being sent from abroad by foreign interests. What he fails to understand is that there are many home-grown terrorists in the country! On the other hand, Jokowi also does not really engage with the question. He beats around the bush on the human rights issue, when he could have made a compelling argument for building social capital through his deradicalization efforts.

The second question probed further into counter- and de-radicalization efforts. Prabowo kicked off by reiterating that terrorists are proxy agents. He cites economic and social grievances as a main cause for radicalization and vows to invest in education and healthcare. Amin responded by emphasizing ideology-based deradicalization supported with socio-economic empowerment. In his last response, Prabowo asserts the “strongman” narrative by insisting that if the country were self-sufficient, there would be no terrorists. He also vows to increase early detection by bolstering police, military, and intelligence capabilities.

Again, Prabowo brings back the “proxy” narrative which has been popular among the more hard-line nationalists such as Gatot Nurmantyo and Ryamizard Ryacudu (the current Defence Minister).  However, his observation that terrorism is simply caused by economic grievances is at odds with the established literature on radicalization. Furthermore, his proposal to increase self-sufficiency is off-tangent. Lastly, while boosting early detection capabilities is necessary, Prabowo’s message gives off chilling authoritarian vibes (mostly due to his ties with the authoritarian New Order government).


There are some general conclusions that we can draw from the flow of the debate. In the human rights scene, both candidates falter in their arguments. In my analysis, this mostly stems from the absence of a coherent human rights agenda. While Jokowi can claim to not have a patchy human rights record, he himself has failed to fulfill his promise to bring justice to previous human rights abuses. Prabowo is also not the best character to speak about human rights. In law enforcement, their programs and promises are still quite vague and general; not much can be said about them for now. On corruption, I would be more inclined to side with Jokowi, as Prabowo’s proposals bring back images of a powerful bureaucracy capable of stifling socio-political life. The same could be said of their proposals on counterterrorism.

In the end, what the first round of debate shows is less substance and more style. Both of the candidates seemed to be reading from a script, causing the debate to lack an element of spontaneity and witty comebacks. Prabowo was more defensive, while Jokowi was aggressively tearing Prabowo apart while still managing to defend. This may influence swing voters, but for those who have already made their choice, the debate may only serve to affirm their choices.

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