Indonesian Presidential Debates: Do They Matter?

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As part of the 2019 elections, the Indonesian Election Committee (KPU) will conduct the first official presidential debate on the 17th of January. The themes for this first debate are some of the most strategic and pressing subjects, which are legal affairs, human rights, corruption, and terrorism. How impactful will this debate be compared to the one in the 2014 election? Can this resolve the current flow of unsubstantial or sensational news relating to the candidates and the election? What’s all the fuss about revealing the debate questions beforehand? We discuss these topics and more with Dr. Djayadi Hanan, lecturer and the director of political science research at the Paramadina University and the Executive Director of Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC), one of the most credible polling and political research firms in Indonesia.. Here are our key takeaways from this interview:

Changes in the 2019 Campaign Rules

  • Although this year’s election is a rematch of presidential candidates from 2014, the campaign rules are different as the KPU has made some adjustments to the campaign rules that restrict mass campaigning until March this year. The elections will be held on April 17, 2019.

  • Technically, this year’s campaign period is much longer than that of 2014 but there are more restrictions this time around, making it more difficult for candidates to exploit the full campaign season. The candidates continue to make an effort to find loopholes in these rules.

Unsubstantial Issues Dominating the Campaign

  • The current campaign is dominated by petty narratives because of two reasons:

  1. for the contender, exploiting fear through negative portrayals of the incumbent is more powerful and can become a good foundation to build upon other points of attack, such as economic issues. Besides, creating scandalous reports are easier to produce than thought-out, data-based programs and ideas;

  2. for the incumbent, they strongly believed that they need to defend themselves not only from the actual economic records but also from those smear type accusations. These have kept the president and his campaign team busy.

KPU Debates

  • Indonesian voters generally have a keen interest in the presidential debates. In the 2014 election, an overwhelming majority (85% voters) of voters watched the debate at least once and 70% of whom, watched more than one debate, according to SMRC data.

  • Typically, presidential debates in Indonesia tend to be influential on swing voters if the race is close. Most credible polls show that the margin in this current race between Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno remains wide, 15-20%+ points in some cases. As a result, Djayadi believes that the debates will have much less of an impact unlike in 2014 where the race was tighter.

  • Djayadi also believes that the debates back then helped the newcomer Widodo, by proving that he was ready for the national stage and to take on his former backer and political veteran, Prabowo.

  • Factors in favour of President Widodo today:

  1. Performance rating - Widodo’s overall performance as a president is seen by the public as not too high but “good enough”, which is just sufficient to maintain trust and votes at the moment.

  2. On security - the overall security situation in the country is considered decent.

  3. On the economy - while the economy is stable, unemployment, particularly among the youths continues to be a concern and maintaining the price of basic food staples has been challenging, so the government needs to work harder on these.

  • Aside from the above fundamental factors, it’s possible that smear or black campaigns could influence voters and tighten the race but Djayadi says he is optimistic that that Indonesian voters are more savvy nowadays and aware of such things.

Controversy Over Debate Questions

  • Unlike with past debates, the KPU decided to provide the debate questions to the candidates a week prior to the debate which caused some critics and observers to question the KPU’s impartiality as the change would likely compensate for Widodo’s less than perfect public speaking skills. Despite the controversy, Djayadi expects that in the end, the decision will neither help or hurt any specific candidate as both sides are aware of the three topics that will be discussed in the debate. Instead, he added that the presidential debates are meant to showcase the candidates temperament, psychological capability, and communication skills rather than just data memorization. Therefore, ideally the questions should have been kept confidential, he said.

First-timers and Millennial voters

  • Candidates have also been intently targeting first-time voters, which includes Indonesians who are 17-22 years-old, newly retired civil servants and army/ police officers who were prohibited from taking part in general elections during their tenure.

  • Young Indonesian voters or those who are classified as millennials, are important as the SMRC calculated that they make up to 55% of current voters demography. This also goes to show that the use of social media will be much more intense in this debate.

Shawn Corrigan