JAKARTA, June 9 (Reuters) - A month before Indonesia’s presidential election, the two candidates traded barbs in their first televised debate on Monday, with Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo seen faring better than former special forces general Prabowo Subianto.
The two candidates are close in opinion polls ahead of the July 9 election, although Jokowi holds the edge. Up to 40 percent of the voters are undecided, one survey has said.
The winner will lead the world’s fourth-most populous nation, which has more Muslims than any other country, for the next five years. Both have promised market-friendly policies to revive growth in Southeast Asia’s largest economy, which fell to the lowest in four years in the first quarter.
Jokowi appeared to have scored more points in the debate, but no killer blows, analysts said after the two-hour long discussion, in which the two candidates were accompanied by their vice presidential running mates. Prabowo appeared to be on the defensive about his human rights record, they said.
“I don’t think there were any knockout blows,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political analyst. “I think Jokowi did what he needed to do and that was to perform confidently in a very public venue.”
Prabowo, who was formerly married to a daughter of authoritarian leader Suharto, relies on his strongman and nationalistic image to appeal to voters weary of what is perceived to be indecisive leadership under current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is due to leave office in October.
“We want to be a nation that is independent, that is productive. We don’t want to just be a market for others,” said Prabowo, wearing a white dress shirt and a traditional Indonesian cap. “We want to stand on our own feet.”
Although relatively cordial, the debate turned tense when Jusuf Kalla, Jokowi’s vice presidential candidate, asked Prabowo to address human rights in Indonesia, which the ex-general took as a stab at him personally.
“We had to do what was necessary to ensure the safety of the larger Indonesian society,” Prabowo said, raising his voice. “Mr. Kalla, I am responsible and my conscience is clear. I am the strongest defender of human rights in this republic. I have no doubts.”
Prabowo was discharged from service by a military council for misinterpreting orders in the abduction of anti-Suharto activists, and has been accused of instigating riots that killed hundreds of people just before Suharto’s downfall in 1998.
He denies any wrongdoing and has never been charged.
On Sunday, he visited Suharto’s grave and sat beside his former wife during a ceremony to mark the strongman leader’s 93rd birth anniversary.
“Figures like Suharto and (founding president) Sukarno have left a very long-lasting impression on Indonesia and...Prabowo is a strong believer in both their ideologies,” Suhardi, an executive of Prabowo’s Gerindra party, told Reuters.
“The visit (to Suharto’s grave) was in some part a family matter and...he wants to show people that he keeps figures like Suharto in mind.”
Jokowi, wearing a dark suit and red tie, looked to stress his man of the people image and reputation for good governance.
“Democracy for us is listening to the voice of the people and carrying it out,” he said. “That’s why every day we go to villages, markets, riverbanks, farms and fish auctions. Because we want to listen to the voice of the people.”
Jokowi represents a clean break from the elite and often corrupt old guard that has ruled Indonesia for decades. His rags-to-riches story and common man approach have made him popular and he is seen as having a clean, can-do approach that has catapulted him from small-town mayor to governor of the capital and presidential favourite within two years.
Neutrals believed he and Kalla carried the day despite Jokowi’s inexperience on the national stage.
“Jokowi and Kalla are more convincing because they answered questions based on real examples during their time serving in the government. That shows they can do better if they are chosen,” said Aloysius Andrew, a 21-year-old student at the University of Indonesia.
Both candidates said they would strengthen the country’s popular anti-graft agency, the Corruption Eradication Commission, which has exposed high-level corruption and arrested cabinet ministers, company executives and political leaders despite limited resources.
“They were both successful in framing themselves in the way they want to be portrayed in this election,” said Tobias Basuki, a political analyst at think tank CSIS.
“But hands down, Jokowi and Kalla won the debate.” (Additional reporting by Fransiska Nangoy and Dennys Kapa, Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)