Indonesia Votes 2019: The second debate – of flying unicorns and bio-fueled isolationism

The second presidential debate was held on Sunday night (17 February) featuring just the two presidential candidates, President Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto. The themes of the debate included infrastructure, energy, natural resources, basic foodstuffs, and environment.

Unlike the first debate, which was quite “narrated” by the moderators, this time the questions were unknown to the candidates; They were also given the opportunity to ask a question to their opponent.

The debate flowed freely and did allow for differences of opinion and ideology to emerge. Interestingly in terms of debating approach, the best attacks were on the feet responses rather than planned hits.


One very interesting approach used by Prabowo, and one which clearly tracked well with the audience, was a willingness to compliment and agree with Jokowi on the latter’s track record on certain issues. The approach gave him an aura of statesmanship especially when he refused offers from moderators to offer criticism saying he had no interest in faking disagreements. Arguably it provided him with more credibility when providing later critiques of his opponent’s record.

On the environment Jokowi credited the reduction in forest and peatland fires to the Government’s efforts in law enforcement and heavy fines to corporations breaking the law noting they had recorded fines of over $1 billion. Prabowo accepted this as progress but noted so much more was to be done, which he committed to pursue while also observing the conflict of interest in having the old Ministry of Environment merged with the old Ministry of Forestry. He promised to separate them and have Environment active in overseeing Forestry.

On infrastructure, Jokowi provided data on the progress made during his presidency in terms of toll roads, other roads, airport construction, irrigation and dams built and other infrastructure, including broadband connectivity. Prabowo again acknowledged progress but noted several big projects were neither well thought out nor financially feasible and had no environmental impact statements. Jokowi countered noting in detail how each of the specific cases referred to by Prabowo were indeed viable and that all projects were long in planning including on environmental impact – insinuating Prabowo was not speaking the truth.

Economic ideology

On the issue of staple food supply, Jokowi offered data on progress. Prabowo countered by offering an insight into his key ideological disposition on the economy, the essence of which consists three elements: nationalist, socialist, and populist.

Prabowo’s nationalist perspectives emerged several times. In his concluding remarks, he stated he was happy to hand over his estate holdings to the state, but he would keep them because he would manage them himself rather than letting them fall into foreign hands. His autarchic economic views were presented in other occasions, such as expressing fear that growth in digital economy would see more capital flee the Indonesian economy.

His socialist perspectives were outlined in his concerns about Jokowi’s policy of providing land certificates to farmers. He argued, along the very statist lines than have come to dominate discourse on natural resource development over the last 15 years, that Article 33 of the Constitution be interpreted as meaning that the core word “kuasai” (command or master) means the same as “miliki” (own) in terms of the state “owning” all natural resources.

His populist perspectives were elaborated most bluntly in his statement that less than “1% control more than 50% of our wealth”. Although offering no specifics on how to address this imbalance, he hinted quite clearly that state ownership was clearly important. This is a common theme on his campaign and reflects part of the agenda of the massive demonstrations that took place in late 2016 against the former Governor of Jakarta. He also railed against big corporation on several other occasions.

The impact of this was blunted at one point when Jokowi went on the attack noting that Prabowo owns hundreds of thousands of acres of land in East Kalimantan and Aceh, and thus implying that he was part of this 1%.

Economic nationalism was also evident in several of Jokowi’s comments, specifically about import replacement approaches, although his views were less anti-market in tone. For example, on food imports, he noted that better domestic infrastructure would make Indonesian produce more competitive.

Both candidates were keen to outline the value of promoting bio-fuels with Jokowi arguing the need to reduce oil imports while Prabowo noted benefits not only from processing palm oil but other crops too, such as sugar, offering the example of Brazil as evidence.

Both candidates also accepted carte blanche the ideology of self-sufficiency in staple crops as a presumed proxy for food security, again with the focus on reducing imports.

Unfortunately, neither candidate had any focus or expressed any interest in boosting exports. The attention was all focused on reducing imports. The closing of the Indonesian economy to the global economy has been a growing phenomenon over the past 15 years. This is seen in the following graph that plots the scale of exports and imports to GDP and also contrasts this with the situation globally. Indonesia’s withdrawal from global exports markets is very clear. At least in this debate neither candidate seemed to be concerned by this.

The new economy versus the technologically challenged

Arguably the biggest difference between the two candidates emerged towards the end of the debate. In response to Jokowi’s question – “what infrastructure would you build to support the development of Indonesian unicorns?”, Prabowo appeared to flounder in confusion before seeking clarification “when you refer to unicorns, did you mean like those online thingies?”. As the audience giggled, Jokowi nodded a yes to his opponent almost in pity.

The generational difference between the two appeared clear. Prabowo had little of substance to offer other than to see this digital economy growth as another threat to socio-economic equality and also as a distraction to dealing with poverty of farmers. Jokowi replied noting with pride that Indonesia is home to four of Southeast Asia’s seven unicorns (start-up firms valued at over 1 USD billion) and hopes for more soon. He also observed how startups like TaniHub were providing farmers with direct access to markets and boosting their incomes by shrinking the role of traditional intermediaries between farmer and consumer. Jokowi demonstrated a detailed understanding of the complexities of the digital economy, its component elements and potential and with an optimistic tone.

Prabowo evinced a much less sanguine view of the prospects for the contemporary economic agenda, be that Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence or the digital economy. Perhaps reflecting earlier campaign messages by Team Prabowo that echoed the kind of foreboding of the future used effectively by Candidate Trump in the 2016 USA elections, Jokowi actually went on the attack against this pessimism, observing that “it appears that Mr Prabowo is less than optimistic on the future”. Given the quite sunny disposition that most Indonesians maintain, this perhaps forced Prabowo to depart from the “American carnage” tone of earlier days on the campaign to declare that he too was very optimistic.

General perspective

Jokowi’s tone in this debate was more relaxed and much less “prickly” than in the first debate. Indeed, he started rather poorly, losing his train of thought for several seconds in his introductory remarks. During the main body of the debate he deployed various facts and figures to support and defend his performance as president. He also discreetly utilised his political experience as a mayor and a governor and now as a president as a thinly veiled critique of his opponent’s lack of such executive experience.

He presented as the earnest technocratic leader, a safe pair of hands into which the voters should trust to maintain a focus on dealing with economic challenges such as in developing physical infrastructure. He also showed he was the candidate best informed and ready to lead on the digital economy and other contemporary developments.

Jokowi’s direct reference to Prabowo’s land-based wealth, in the same segment that Prabowo was attacking the super wealthy, will be seen by pro-Prabowo supporters as a low blow while from Jokowi supporters it will be seen as Jokowi pricking Prabowo’s hypocritical balloon.

Prabowo’s concluding statement opened with a complement to the work of the President, affirming again a statesman-like persona. He then offered a philosophical position for his campaign, namely of “justice that will produce prosperity”, calling for the active and resolute presence of the state in adressing inequality and to stop wealth flowing overseas. He asserted the basis for this was Article 33 of the Constitution. Indeed, his very statist view of public policy harked back to the 1950s constitutional debates in which 3 visions were offered, namely the Pancasila Vision, the Islamist Vision, and finally the Social-economy Vision. This third vision, which founded its perspective on prioritising a statist view of Article 33, not Pancasila nor Islam, was insignificant in terms of political support at the time. But this Social-economy vision is clearly the one Prabowo is proposing.

Indeed, this statist view of economic policy is now surprisingly mainstream in Indonesia and appears to face no challenge from any political party; it is more a case of how statist you promote yourself or party.

Prabowo did open up a new front on the debate about economic inequality by going beyond the traditional focus on poverty lines to look at overall rates of economic disparity.

His concluding remarks, noting the status of his substantial land-holdings, and willingness to have them returned to the state providing they do not fall to foreigners, while a good passionate rhetorical flourish, was perhaps a distraction from the earlier message on inequality that may resonate more with the aspirational, but vulnerable, middle classes that he should be courting assiduously.

Who won? As usual beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For technocrats and those looking at performance, Jokowi’s case would be convincing. For those moved more by passion Prabowo and his expressed concerns about equity would resonate. The young and urban would have been impressed by Jokowi’s handling and understanding of the digital economy, while Prabowo’s answers might leave them feeling like they were listening to their grandparents. Mind you, Indonesian grandparents are likely to be as unsure of all these “online thingies” as Prabowo, and they were his base in 2014.

Kevin Evans