HEADING into the first televised debate for the Indonesian presidential election on Monday night, the mood among supporters of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo was mixed.
For one, many were concerned that the folksy Mr Joko, or Jokowi as he is popularly known, might be outshone by his opponent Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces commander who is seen as a better orator.
Mr Prabowo is also a more experienced campaigner. He ran in the last presidential election in 2009, and took part in the presidential debates that year as the running mate to former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Taking no chances with his first head-to-head appearance with Mr Prabowo, Mr Joko reportedly took time out from the campaign trail in recent days, and huddled down with key advisors to brush up on the themes for Monday’s debate – democracy, governance and the rule of law.
By comparison, Mr Prabowo and his running mate Hatta Rajasa seemed complacent. When reporters asked how the duo were preparing for the debate, campaign official Idrus Marham told reporters: “What for?”
He got the answer on Monday night, when many of the audience and commentators at home judged Mr Joko and his sharp running-mate Mr Jusuf Kalla, himself a veteran of the 2004 and 2009 debates, to have won the first debate.
Mr Prabowo’s responses to the moderator’s questions were polished, as he pledged to work hard to keep the government clean and uphold the rule of law.But his comments also displayed his lack of experience in civilian bureaucracy.
In contrast, Mr Joko took advantage of his 10 years of experience as mayor of Solo and governor of the capital to stress how he was different.
To him, Mr Joko said, democracy involved engaging ordinary citizens in dialogue, whether at markets or riverbanks.
He also related his experience in appointing officials on merit, not payment or favouritism, and spoke of how he defended the appointment of a Christian local leader to head a sub-district despite protests from conservative Muslim residents.
Surprisingly, Monday’s debate was not entirely dominated by Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo. Their more-experienced running mates in fact demonstrated just how critical they might be in the weeks ahead.
For example, both Mr Kalla and Mr Hatta filled in where Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo were found wanting on details. And crucially for Mr Joko, Mr Kalla went on the offensive in questioning Mr Prabowo’s human rights credentials.
Mr Prabowo was discharged from the military in 1998 for insubordination and abducting several political activists ahead of the downfall of then-president Suharto, his former father-in-law.
He has claimed all those he took were released, but his opponents have continued to press home the point – as Mr Kalla did yesterday.
Mr Prabowo sounded visibly annoyed as he sought to justify that his actions at the time were for the greater good.
But no matter – just under 40 per cent of voters have decided to back him, going by latest opinion polls, and observers say they are not likely to change their minds. Neither are the over 45 per cent who say they back Mr Joko.
If the debates are a battle for undecided voters, Monday’s was a good start for the Jokowi-Kalla ticket.