Indonesia’s second presidential debate might be a source of amusement for many Indonesian voters, thanks to the colourful exchange between the incumbent Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and the contender Prabowo Subianto. Analyses, fact-checks, and memes referring to and criticising the candidates’ debating styles and facial expressions quickly flooded the airways post-debate on Sunday.
But such a debate-turn-banter reveals a bigger problem: the lack of policy details to address structural socio-ecological issues.
There is also a glaring omission here: neither of them admitted their connection to extractive and mining industries.
We should assess the candidates by looking at their commitment to promoting more equitable and just development, human rights, and democratic processes amidst massive capital expansion in infrastructure and extractive sectors, and move away from the blind obsession with economic growth.
The debate kicked off with the session on infrastructure. Jokowi boasted his record in infrastructural development and highlighted the number of new highways, airports, and ports that his administration has built. Attempting to score some points, Prabowo criticised Jokowi’s ambition by pointing out the lack of feasibility study, cost efficiency, and consultation with local communities. But Prabowo failed to specify how his infrastructural policy will address the said problems. There was no discussion on how recent infrastructural initiatives have accelerated land conflicts between local communities and state and corporate authorities.
The second part, covering energy and food policy, posed some tough questions on the impact of the fourth industrial revolution and oil palm plantation on rural smallholders and the environment. Jokowi offered an overly optimistic view, arguing that technological innovations such as farming apps have created a new marketplace where peasants and consumers can partake in agricultural commodity trading. Prabowo, interestingly, cautioned against such a view. But both neglected to consider the gender perspective: what would be the best way to integrate rural technologies without putting women who work in agriculture out of jobs?
Both candidates made an even more blatant mistake when answering the question on how to address the negative impacts of oil palm industry. They tried to outperform each other in showing their commitments to oil palm-based biofuels and other forms of renewable energy. But do not be tricked: biofuel business might exacerbate existing rural inequalities in the context of Indonesia’s weak rule of law.
The third part of the debate raised a classic issue in Indonesian politics: the commitment toward environmental protection and agrarian reform. Prabowo emphasised law enforcement, whereas Jokowi claimed that he had effectively addressed illegal logging and forest fire, a claim disputed by many in civil society. But they missed the real problem here: Indonesia has a notoriously lax process for obtaining permission for corporations to operate in rural areas. Such a problem breeds corruption and unethical corporate practices.
They also made a blunder in conceptualising agrarian reform. Jokowi equated agrarian reform with land-title legalisation. But the two are different. Agrarian reform is more than just legalising land title, it is an attempt to redistribute landholdings and other related rural assets as well as solving land-grabbing cases in a comprehensive manner. Prabowo questioned whether Jokowi’s current agrarian policy will address the issue of lack of land availability for the younger generation, but his proposed solution was vague: a return to the “article 33 of the constitution”, which gives a legal grounding for state management of land, water, and natural resources. Did he want to promote the ownership of land resources by state-owned corporations, or something else?
During this session, nobody talked about the prospect of communal ownership and communal management of land and rural resources, a possible solution for the many agrarian problems that Indonesians face.
Lastly, in the final session, both candidates asked each other questions. A major point deserves closer attention here: their views on maritime development. Neither Jokowi nor Prabowo talked about the destructive impacts of capital expansion through trawl fishing, infrastructure projects, and tourism on coastal and fishing communities, despite their claims as the champions of the fisherfolks. It was one of the rare occasions where the livelihood of fishers received national attention, but the debate still overlooked the root cause of the problem.
There is also a glaring omission here: neither of them admitted their connection to extractive and mining industries. A recent study from the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM) shows that a large proportion of the candidates’ campaign financing comes from big mining and energy companies. One does not have to be conspiratorial to see that the interests of extractive businesses can clearly influence the direction of their future policies – at the expense of the interests of rural citizens.
What to make of this last debate then? We can expect that policies concerning infrastructure and rural development will remain largely the same.
But hope should not be lost. If marginalised rural citizens and their allies in civil society will continue their fight, they can, at the very least, serve as the watchdog for the next government’s environmental and natural resource policies.