For much of this year, Prabowo Subianto has run for president of Indonesia by delivering charismatic polemics on the campaign trail against local corruption and foreign exploitation. In a country where the people are desperate for a president who will speak out forcefully against corruption, and where the nationalist tropes taught in school are never far from memory, Prabowo's speeches resonated and helped him close a 38% deficit with his rival, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, in less than three months.

Yet Prabowo's narrative is full of contradictions. He may rail against unnamed foreign enemies, but is himself a member of the international elite. He grew up overseas, where he was educated in international schools. During 25 years in uniform, he fostered a close relationship with the US military. After his dismissal from the Army, he went into self-exile in Jordan, where his good friend King Abdullah took him in. He would be as at home at Davos as in Depok.

Moreover, despite harangues against corruption, Prabowo has formed a coalition to back his bid that includes three parties implicated in the biggest corruption scandals in recent memory.

  • Aburizal Bakrie, the chairman of Golkar party and the man Prabowo has reportedly promised to appoint to the new post of prime minister, is a tycoon whose wealth was acquired and is preserved through a series of favourable decisions by state institutions. 
  • Suryadharma Ali, an early and enthusastic supporter, delivered the support of his United Development Party (PPP) for Prabowo in May just before resigning as minister of religion due to allegations that he pilfered state funds budgeted to allow the poor to go on pilgrimage to Mecca.
  • The Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), another party in Prabowo's coalition, was implicated in one of the most sensational corruption scandals in recent memory, wherein an aide to the party chairman was caught rigging beef import quota awards — in a hotel room with a naked college student and a suitcase containing a billion rupiah (US$83,000).
  • That's to say nothing of Prabowo's running mate, Hatta Rajasa, who as Coordinating Minister for the Economy in the outgoing administration would have been responsible for many of the foreign investment policies and failures on corruption that Prabowo criticises. Hatta is also a member of the National Mandate Party (PAN), which was embarrassed last year when the actor Harrison Ford exposed corruption in the forestry ministry, run by a PAN leader.

Yet Prabowo and his running mate, Hatta Rajasa, rarely had to answer for these contradictions over the last four weeks of campaigning, because their opponents, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo and former Vice Presdient Jusuf Kalla, have been unwilling to engage in attacks on their opponents, citing a Javanese sense of reserve, even as their opponents leveled highly effective attacks at them.

They waited until the final joint presidential-vice presidential debate, late Saturday night, to adjust that strategy. In the final segment, in which one ticket was able to ask the other a question, Kalla noted matter of factly that Prabowo had spoken about thieves the day before. Gesturing toward himself, Kalla said, 'We and the parties that support us are not thieves.' Then, clearly relishing the chance to strike, he ran through a list of the other side's iniquities. 'My question is, because we (on our side) don't have oil thieves, don't have meat thieves, don't have a rice mafia, we don't have a hajj mafia, we don't have forest thieves, who is it that you are referring to?'

Prabowo, struggling to regain his narrative and his cool, admitted there might be thieves in his own party. His running mate, Hatta, stood up to calmly and cynically suggest that if there problems with corruption, then the police and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) could take care of it. Kalla, seeing he had landed a blow, shot back with no small amount of scorn that all of these problems were already under consideration or on trial in KPK. Jokowi suggested Prabowo had not yet answered the question and invited him to do so again.

Then Prabowo, who has been dogged by questions about his quick temper, but mostly kept it in check over the past few weeks, began to become visibly angry. Repeating his argument that corruption was a national problem, he alluded to allegations of graft within Jokowi's administration in Jakarta and demanded some introspection. Jokowi and Kalla nodded agreeably, knowing they had won the exchange.

But it was likely too little, too late. An hour later, at midnight, both campaigns fell silent as they entered the mandatory three-day quiet period before polls on Wednesday, and Indonesian soccer fanatics (most of the country) switched their television sets and attentions to the World Cup quarterfinal between Argentina and Belgium.

The exchange was a glimpse of the debate Indonesians deserved over the past three months. They never really got it. The promise of an outsider presidential candidate like Jokowi – that he would not shy away from asking hard questions about corruption or pointing out elite hypocrisy – has evaporated, along with his lead. If he yet manages to eke out a victory and is given an opportunity to govern Indonesia, we should hope he comes to believe he won it by going on the offensive in extra time.