Indonesia presidential candidates spar over corruption scandals in final debate
JAKARTA (Reuters) - Four days before Indonesia's presidential election, the two candidates and their running mates traded barbs over food security and graft in their final television debate on Saturday.
Jakarta Governor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and former general Prabowo Subianto are running neck-in-neck to be the new leader of the world's third-largest democracy.
The debate was the last day to get their message across to voters before the elections body imposed a so-called quiet period leading up to the July 9 poll.
Food, energy, and the environment were the topics under discussion in the debate, and both presidential candidates looked to win over undecided voters, which one survey estimated at around 20 percent.
The typically cordial debate got heated when Jokowi's running mate Jusuf Kalla repeatedly raised the topic of corruption scandals involving key supporters of Prabowo.
"I'm not saying there are no thieves in my party ... but what I meant was (corruption) is a phenomenon in our country," Prabowo said in reference to a speech made at a campaign rally earlier in the week.
In recent years, Indonesia has seen a number of food corruption scandals over import quotas that caused shortages and price spikes for foods such as beef and garlic.
The religious affairs minister, who is a key supporter of Prabowo, was forced to resign in May after being implicated in a graft case involving funds allocated for the haj pilgrimage.
"The point was raised repeatedly by the Jokowi-JK team and that made them come out looking tougher than in previous debates," said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based analyst for Reformasi Weekly. "If you're undecided and you're watching, you can come away feeling confident that they're tough enough to run the country."
Home to the world's third-largest expanse of tropical forests, Indonesia is a key player in the battle against climate change and faces international pressure to halt deforestation.
The country has surpassed Brazil in clearing tropical forests and losses are accelerating despite a 2011 moratorium meant to protect wildlife and combat climate change.
"We have to find a balance between economic interests, public interests and protecting the environment," said Jokowi, who seemed more at ease than in previous debates.
"Our forests are being destroyed, our beaches are being destroyed because we have pursued economic growth too aggressively and not paid attention to the environment."
Prabowo called for greater monitoring using satellites and heavier sanctions for companies that violate forestry laws.
Both sides in the debate spoke in favor of a reducing food imports and pledged to increase the amount of farm land to improve food self sufficiency -- especially for staple rice.
"By using better fertilizer on existing land we can raise productivity by 40 percent ... We will add 2 million hectares of new rice fields in Indonesia," said Prabowo, whose running mate is former chief economic minister Hatta Rajasa.
The politically sensitive issue of fuel subsidies, which cost the government around $20 billion a year and have put pressure on the current account deficit, was avoided by both sides during the debate.
With around 190 million people eligible to vote in next week's poll, the winner will lead the world's fourth-most populous nation, which has more Muslims than any other country.
Jokowi, who at one point enjoyed a 30 point lead over his rival but has narrowed in recent weeks to single digits, has been the target of a campaign questioning his religion and ethnicity.
Jokowi is set to go on a minor pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia during the quiet period ahead of the vote, his campaign manager told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Eveline Danubrata, Nilufar Rizki and Chris Nusatya; Editing by Randy Fabi)
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