President Joko Widodo and opposition rival Prabowo Subianto, both clearly engaged in a feeling out process, did little to move the needle in the first debate of the 2019 presidential campaign, which by design focused on law, human rights, terrorism and corruption.

“These debates are meant to target undecided voters and I don’t think the undecided were swayed one way or another,” says one Indonesian analyst, pointing to a range of polls that show 15% of Indonesians have yet to make up their minds between the two candidates.

In a broad sense, Prabowo may find it difficult to differentiate himself from Widodo, whose nationalist policies are similar to his own, some analysts say. As a senior business executive put it: “He’s got no real leverage and that puts him in a bind.”

While the race is likely to tighten in the weeks before the April 17 election, Widodo leads Prabowo comfortably by 54.9% to 35.5% in one recent survey, and by 47.7% to 30.6% in another, enjoying wide margins in the populous provinces of East and Central Java.

On social media and in business gatherings, Indonesians were disappointed with a lackluster showing by both candidates at the debate, but things are expected to liven up when the four future debates turn to economic issues, where the president is considered the most vulnerable.

There were hints of that in the exchanges with Prabowo’s youthful running mate, businessmen Sandiaga Uno, latching on to a prepared question about overlapping legal regulations and their impact on investment, which clearly had the president on the defensive.

Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno (R) during a live nationwide television debate, Jakarta, January 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

While Widodo is far more assured than he was in 2014, it was one of several times the former town mayor and Jakarta governor showed a prickly side, obviously uncomfortable having to defend his record against a challenger (Prabowo) who has never held public office.

One of Widodo’s low moments was when Prabowo asked him why there was so much confusion about the country’s rice supply, with the agriculture minister saying there was sufficient grain and the trade minister announcing contradictorily there would have to be imports.

“I allow differences in my Cabinet,” the president replied testily. “It’s normal. There’s nothing bad.”

But businessmen and other critics have long pointed to a lack of information-sharing and coordination in the administration and wider bureaucracy.

On top of brandishing the biggest single infrastructure-building program in the country’s history, Widodo’s government has been busy trotting out good news reports showing poverty and inequality rates on the decline, and the creation of ten million new jobs since 2014.

But it hasn’t been able to hide all the bad news, including a US$8.57 billion trade deficit in 2018, the highest since 1975, which is being blamed on high fuel imports and subsidies that are likely to remain in place to stem a surge in election-year inflation.

People walk past a mock one thousand Rupiah coin on display at Bank Indonesia's headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 17, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Beawiharta
A mock 1,000 Rupiah coin at Bank Indonesia’s headquarters, Jakarta, November 17, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

There were missteps, most notably when Widodo declared that Prabowo’s Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) was the most corrupt in Parliament – a tiled reserved for his own ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) which has had the most MPs jailed on graft charges.

He did hastily correct himself, however, pointing out that Gerindra had recruited more former graft convicts than any other party to run in the upcoming legislative elections, a claim Prabowo countered by noting that any citizen was entitled to re-enter politics after serving their sentence.

Last September, the Supreme Court rejected a National Election Commission (KPU) ruling forbidding 40 candidates previously convicted of graft from running for the House of Representative (DPR) and the Regional Representative Council (DPD) upper house.

As much as the decision angered pro-democracy activists, there was one important provision: details of the candidates’ criminal records must be made publicly available to allow voters to make an informed decision, a revelation that could hit the popularity of the six ex-convicts standing for Gerindra.

Singling out Gerindra, however, is not entirely fair. According to Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), Golkar is fielding eight ex-convicts, as are the People’s Conscience Party (6), the Democrat Party (4) and PDI-P and the Justice and Prosperity Party, each with one.

Prabowo was also on the back foot when the president observed that Gerindra had few women in its leadership structure, unlike PDI-P where former president Megawati Sukarnoputri is chairperson and her daughter, chief social affairs minister Puan Maharani, heads the party’s parliamentary faction.

The leader of the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) Megawati Sukarnoputri looks at a booth displaying memorabilia on the sidelines of the 4th PDIP congress at the Inna Grand Bali Beach hotel on the resort island of Bali April 10, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu ???ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA.? - RTR4WS5T
Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) founder Megawati Sukarnoputri. Photo: Reuters via Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu

But while Widodo can also personally boast of nine women occupying what he said were key positions in his 34-strong Cabinet, more than in any previous administration, neither PDI-P nor Gerindra have anything to shout about in picking candidates for Parliament.

Indeed, both have fewer women hopefuls among the candidates than any of the 14 other parties taking part in this year’s election, PDI-P with 37.5% and Gerindra at the bottom with 36.7%. Like Golkar just ahead of them, that proportion has barely changed through three election cycles.

The sharia-based United Development Party (PPP), which appears to be in a fight for its life to reach the 4% vote threshold, tops the mainstream parties with a ratio of 42.1%, though that’s still below three new parties which boast between 47.7% and 55.5%.

Vice-presidential candidate Uno, 49, shone in several other early exchanges, overshadowing conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, 75, his opposition counterpart, who stood in silence in a trademark red sarong and sandals for 45 long minutes before offering a contribution.

An Indonesian voter casts her vote at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Jefri Tarigan
An Indonesian voter casts her vote at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Jefri Tarigan

Saying beforehand he would “just follow the lead of Pak Jokowi (Widodo),” Amin finally came to life when the debate moved to terrorism, where his religious background allowed him to respond.

“Terrorism is evil and it must be eliminated at the roots,” he told an audience evenly divided between supporters of both camps. “The MUI (Indonesia Ulema Council, which he still heads) has issued a fatwa that terrorism is not jihad, it is a sin.”

What struck many observers, however, was the way Amin accepted terrorism as a misunderstanding of religion, while Prabowo, a former deputy commander of Indonesia’s Detachment 81 anti-terrorism unit, laid much of the blame on economic inequality, even remarking at one point: “I reject the notion that Muslims are terrorists.”