Jokowi Tops Prabowo in Indonesian Debate

Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo convincingly topped former General Prabowo Subianto Monday night in the first presidential debate of the Indonesian campaign, most analysts say. The performance helped put to bed questions over the governor’s political depth while making Prabowo’s controversial military past a campaign issue.

“The conventional wisdom was that if Joko could just hold his own it would be enough. The fact that he seems to have ‘won’ the debate is a major coup for him. But there are four more debates to go before the presidential election on July 9,” said a political analyst.

Joko, known universally as Jokowi, has been attacked by the Prabowo camp as an inexperienced lightweight despite having done more in two years to govern the sprawling city of Jakarta than most of his predecessors did in full terms. He has cleared squatters out of key areas and opened up green space. He freed up a crowded public market, restoring several lanes of central city roadway. He broke ground on a light rail system that was stalled in the planning stages for 25 years and he has put tax collection online, eliminating considerable corruption and increasing city revenues. He has also rolled out a new health insurance program and expanded free schooling for the poor.

“He is not an intellectual by any means but he does seem to get things done,” said the analyst. “The idea was that Prabowo would eat him alive. People were waiting for Jokowi to stumble. Instead he and [running mate Jusuf] Kalla chipped away at Prabowo on human rights. Prabowo got high-pitched and rattled.”

The race, first thought to be Jokowi’s to lose, has seemingly narrowed somewhat in recent weeks as Prabowo’s efficient Gerindra party machine has poured money and resources into the campaign. He has also made common cause with Golkar, the country’s biggest political party, headed by coal tycoon Aburizal Bakrie. Prabowo’s running mate, Hatta Rajasa, is a savvy political insider but he lacks charisma and a significant political base.

Prabowo’s side has been spinning the idea that the race will be a dead heat by election day, even though most credible polls still show Jokowi with about a 10-point lead in the two-man race.

Prabowo has also spent substantial amounts of money on television advertising to argue that Jokowi is the puppet of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and that he lacks the intellectual substance to run the country. Prabowo has attempted to cast the battle as a choice between his presumably decisive leadership and Jokowi’s naiveté and inexperience.

Despite Jokowi’s formidable credentials, including almost 10 years of government experience, first as mayor of the central Java city of Solo, population 550,000, then in Jakarta, some in the western investment community are watching Jokowi anxiously. Financial markets rose when Jokowi became a candidate, mostly because he is reckoned to be the more predictable of the two and he has substantial support from the Indonesian Chinese business community. His running mate, former vice president Jusuf Kalla, has a solid reputation and a long track record in government.

In the debate, Prabowo, as he has throughout the campaign, stuck to his vision of an economic plan that advocates increased Indonesian ownership of resources that now are in the hands of foreign multinationals. Jokowi has made statements advocating economic nationalism as well, but most investors remain in the dark about his plans. In the debate, the Jakarta governor concentrated on the need for reforms to improve the bureaucracy and reduce corruption — and cited his record in fighting for secular pluralism.

To Prabowo’s surprise, the pundits pretty much awarded Jokowi and Kalla both horns and the tail in the debate as they defended their credentials as reformers, with Jokowi citing his creation of a transparent bid process for Jakarta government contracts and other issues. Prabowo by contrast grew heated during the debate in answers to questions over his human rights record, raising once again questions about his demeanor and mercurial temper.

Although corruption and clean government dominated the debate, Kalla returned again and again to Prabowo’s record as commander of the Strategic Reserve Command, or Kostrad, during the May 1998 riots that took the lives of more than 1,000 Jakarta dwellers, most of them Chinese.

The troops that Prabowo commanded were also accused of kidnapping democracy advocates, among other alleged crimes that resulted in his being barred entry to the United States and Australia. Now a successful businessman, Prabowo has played down the issues, saying he was never charged with a crime and that the accusations are part of the risk of being a military leader.

Nonetheless, privately many in the business community who are close to him are concerned about his stability. He has answered critics by saying: “I am the staunchest human rights defender in this country,” adding that as a soldier he had done his best to protect Indonesia’s sovereignty by following his superiors’ orders.

However, a leaked document from 1998 made public by the Jakarta Post yesterday, which was signed by members of the Indonesian Military’s Officer’s Honorary Council, indicated that Prabowo had been fired from his post due to insubordination. Signatories include then Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the current President; and then Army chief of staff Gen. Soebagyo Hadi Siswoyo.

According to the Post story, the document states that Prabowo, when he was Special Forces commander before the riots, overstepped his authority by ordering units under his command to kidnap activists of the radical People’s Democratic Party (PRD), a small party blamed by former President Suharto for inciting unrest. The document reveals that one of the units did not act on its own initiative, as Prabowo’s campaign team have repeatedly claimed, and that Prabowo had reassured them the order had come from the commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, Gen. Wiranto.

The document states that Prabowo had been dismissed on charges of human rights violations in relation to the abductions as well as other actions that demonstrated his insubordination and disregard for the military code. In conclusion, the council said Prabowo had disgraced and disregarded the military system and committed a criminal offense.

Prabowo’s campaign team insisted that the former general was honorably discharged. He was never convicted of any offense related to his military service.