Medan, Indonesia – The two candidates squaring off for Indonesia’s top seat will face each other for the first time in a televised debate on Thursday as campaigning gathers pace for April’s election.
President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, is bidding for a second term in office against Prabowo Subianto, a controversial former general with a poor human rights record, in what is almost a rematch of the 2014 campaign.
Controversy is already swirling around the debate, which will be broadcast across local television networks at 7pm Jakarta time (12:00 GMT).
The candidates have been given the questions – focusing on law, human rights, terrorism and corruption – in advance amid concerns that the two men might escape having to address more controversial issues such as human rights abuses in Papua, in the far east of the Indonesian archipelago.
“One candidate is an accused perpetrator of human rights violations, while the other one lets impunity flourish under his administration,” Veronica Koman, a Jakarta-based Indonesian human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
Analysts hope the debate will help clarify each candidate’s vision for the country ahead of the April 17 polls and put real campaign issues on the table.
“It’s all been tit-for-tat trivial stuff so far. Maybe the first debate will introduce some substance,” said Ian Wilson, lecturer in politics and security studies and research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, at Australia’s Murdoch University.
A former furniture salesman and Jakarta governor with a passion for heavy metal music, Jokowi, 57, is affiliated with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).
In 2014, he became Indonesia’s first president without links to the military or the political or religious elite.
But while his “ordinary man” image inspired many Indonesians, some analysts say he has proved less impressive as a leader.
“[He’s made] little progress economically, the investment in infrastructure has been fraught with problems and yet to bear fruit, and he’s shown himself to be deeply illiberal in many respects,” Wilson said.
Baiq Wardhani, a lecturer in politics at Universitas Airlangga in Surabaya, told Al Jazeera that Jokowi has failed to deliver on campaign promises to address human rights violations.
As a candidate, he had pledged to deal with historic abuses, including the anti-Communist purge of 1965; the 1998 riots in Jakarta; and the killings of Muslim protesters in 1989 – but has made little progress.
In the contested region of Papua, the poorest in the archipelago, Jokowi has sought to improve infrastructure and connectivity in the hope of boosting the economic wellbeing of residents, but Amnesty International says killings by the security forces continue and have not been addressed.
Meanwhile, minorities, non-Muslims, gay and transgender people have all come under pressure during Jokowi’s first term. And while he may not have been directly involved, the president has faced criticism he has done little to come to the aid of those who have been implicated in sensitive issues such as high-profile blasphemy cases.
In the most well-known case, Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian who is better known as Ahok, was convicted of blasphemy in 2017 and jailed for two years.
In another incident, an ethnic Chinese woman in Medan was found guilty of the same offence for complaining about the volume of speakers at her local mosque. She too was jailed. About 85 percent of Indonesia’s population is Muslim.
Jokowi’s rival, 67-year-old Prabowo Subianto, trades on his strongman image and is affiliated with the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).
Prabowo served in the military from 1974 to 1998, before being discharged after he was accused of human rights violations in relation to coordinating riots in 1998 in which more than 1,000 people died, as well as the murders of pro-independence activists in Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation from 1975 until 1999.
He has denied the allegations.
Jokowi’s choice for vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, 75, is the head of Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI).
In recent years, Amin has overseen fatwa, a general decree in Islam by a religious authority, on a range of controversial topics including support for female genital mutilation and a call for those caught committing same-sex acts to be sentenced to death. In a 2018 interview, Amin described being LGBT as a “violation”.
Prabowo’s vice president running mate is Sandiaga Uno, 49, the former deputy-governor of Jakarta.
A prominent Indonesian businessman, there has been speculation that Uno was chosen for his ability to fund the presidential campaign rather than his political insight, given that he’s a relative newcomer on the Indonesian political stage.
One of the key issues in the campaign is expected to be the economy, the largest in Southeast Asia.
Growth remained above five percent in 2017 and 2018, and Jokowi’s attempts to boost the economy through a series of policy packages helped reduce the poverty rate to below 10 percent of the population for the first time.
But the sharp decline in the rupiah – to its lowest level since 1998 – stirred memories of the hardship of that year’s Asian financial crisis, with falling oil prices and declining exports putting pressure on the country’s finances.
“Sandiaga [Uno] actually might be able to pull something if they really stick with economic issues. But the problem is that Prabowo’s camp is very undisciplined this time, and has made a lot of blunders,” Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst and lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Bandung, said.
On Monday, Prabowo delivered a televised speech at the Jakarta Convention Centre, mapping out his campaign vision. He stuck closely to his strong nationalistic message, focusing primarily on money matters.
“We believe we can increase people’s purchasing power, we must stop the flow of money abroad. We must work so that money flows into the Republic of Indonesia,” he said.
Jokowi has yet to give a similar speech but he is expected to press home his commitment to infrastructure improvements and the eradication of poverty, developing the themes of his 2014 campaign.
“Jokowi’s policies have often sided with young people and touched the grassroots level, such as the Kartu Indonesia Sehat (Healthy Indonesia Card), Kartu Indonesia Pintar (Smart Indonesia Card), Social Assurance Scheme (BPJS), and others,” Wardhani said. “The Jokowi government has also built roads outside Java and several toll roads.”
The 2019 election appears to have a very different feel to the polls five years ago.
According to Murdoch University’s Wilson, Indonesians seemed to have tired of politics.
“There isn’t the same degree of urgency or intensity that was felt in 2014,” he said. “(There’s a) sense that it’s not the same kind of contest. It seems that there is less at stake, or at least that’s the perception. It’s not a ‘defining moment’ election in the same way as 2014.”
Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst and lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani, warned there was a risk that people could be further put off by negative campaign tactics.
“It looks to me that people are not as engaged or as excited as they used to be back in 2014,” he said.
“On Jokowi’s side, the selection of Ma’ruf has dampened the enthusiasm. On Prabowo’s side, they are siding with Prabowo not because he’s inspiring, but because they (are) all united with their dislike of Jokowi, and that’s not really a good way to excite people.”