On Sunday night, a small crowd of young Jakartans and a handful of foreign journalists gathered at a cafe in South Jakarta. A projection screen was set up on one wall and a presenter with a microphone was warming up the crowd. But this was no World Cup event. They were there for a different kind of sport: the second presidential debate ahead of Indonesia's 9 July election.
The spectacle of two leaders going head-to-head for the presidency is a new phenomenon for Indonesia, where previous direct presidential elections have involved up to five candidates. And with such a great contrast between the two candidates, Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, the weekly debates can make for entertaining viewing.
Aside from giving voters the chance to hear from their prospective leaders directly, the televised debates also provide the public with the chance to report on the competing figures, their platforms and their leadership styles. Tables at the cafe on Sunday night were covered in laptops, smartphones and tablets, used to furiously tap out tweets as the debate unfolded. The atmosphere was more like a newsroom than a Sunday night get-together.
With most mainstream media outlets having already picked sides in the race — Prabowo with two television stations behind him and Jokowi ruling TV news and newspapers — it's no wonder Jakarta's youth are hungry for independent and firsthand comment. Even foreign news outlets and observers are considered biased in their reporting and analysis. By sounding their views online, young Indonesians are asking for the chance to make up their own minds.
Their enthusiastic engagement with debate topics as dry as 'Developing Democracy, Clean Governance and Legal Certainty' in the first debate, and 'Economic Development and People's Welfare' on Sunday night is encouraging for Indonesia's consolidating democracy, as is their willingness to engage with views different to their own. The crowd on Sunday was mixed between those supporting Jokowi and Prabowo, as well as others who had yet to decide. The event was organised by Ayo Vote (see promotional material left), an initiative for youth involvement in the 2014 elections which claims to be independent, and sociopolitical comedy group Provocative Proactive, which shares members with Ayo Vote.
During the ad breaks, the presenter asked for audience views on the debate so far. 'One-nil Prabowo', someone called out after the first round, during which the candidates laid out their vision and mission statements for Indonesia's economic development. Jokowi had started slowly, giving familiar arguments about his plan to focus on health and education, and the revitalisation of traditional markets. Prabowo had started with a more fiery approach, blaming an alleged lack of funds for economic development and social welfare programs on state money 'leaking' abroad.
In the following segment, Prabowo continued with his 'us and them' rhetoric, saying that unlike neoliberal economies in the West, Indonesia needed to intervene to save its people from poverty. Jokowi pointed to his experience as a mayor and governor, and his successes in empowering 'small economies' by revitalising traditional markets, explaining his approach right down to ensuring the cleanliness of the market and the availability of parking spaces. A crowd member at the cafe called the debate at 2-0 Prabowo, objecting to Jokowi's excessively 'micro' approach.
The debate took a turn when Jokowi tripped up Prabowo with a question on the TPID, or Regional Inflation Control Team. Clearly unfamiliar with the acronym, Prabowo first asked Jokowi to explain it before stumbling his way through a short answer. Laughter broke out in the television audience and at the cafe, while Prabowo appeared red-faced and shaken.
Jokowi supporters in the cafe audience were then ready to take the microphone to denounce what they saw as Prabowo's shallow knowledge of government and his easily ruffled temperament. Online, commenters were busy finding their own meanings for the acronym: 'Tanpa Prabowo Indonesia Damai' (Without Prabowo Indonesia will be Peaceful), or from the other side, 'Tanpa Prabowo Indonesia Dijual' (Without Prabowo Indonesia will be Sold).
With just three weeks left until the presidential election, competition is growing stronger between the two candidates, and reliable information is getting harder to come by. Most polls show Jokowi still in front of Prabowo, but with a large portion of swing voters or abstainers to win over in the coming weeks. With high activity on social media, these voters will have more than just the mainstream media to inform their choice.
Image courtesy of @AyoVote.