Mega gears up for big TV debate

Media-shy leader will face off with media-savvy Dr Amien today.

The Indonesian President is doing some last-minute cramming.

Holed up in her residence in the plush suburban district of Menteng, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri has been summoning ministers and aides these last few days to brief her on a gamut of issues that affect Indonesia.

It is a make-or-break day for the 57-year-old leader as she braces herself for a TV debate with her nemesis, Dr Amien Rais.

With the goggle box turning into a battleground for presidential contenders desperate to sway millions of undecided voters, the two will spar over questions on the economy, politics and security today before a five-member panel of experts.

The debate is organised by the General Elections Commission (KPU).

The two retired generals – Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Wiranto – and Mr Hamzah Haz will face off in a separate debate tomorrow night.

A draw decided who was to meet whom for the debates, which will cap a month-long election campaign by the five presidential candidates.

TV debates have been a conspicuous feature of the campaign. And Ms Megawati has been conspicuously absent from them.

The goggle box has been a thorn in the side of the incumbent, who is by nature an introvert. On the few occasions when she did appear on taped programmes, tough questions appeared to ruffle her.

While most of the candidates have taken part in debates organised by private TV stations, Ms Megawati has been staying clear.

Last week, for example, she pulled out of the weekly presidential debate programme on Trans TV after the local station refused to accede to her demands to replace the panelists comprising human rights activists and observers with journalists.

Her advisers are divided over the benefits of her going on air, with some fearing that it could backfire, given her unease before the camera.

But she has little choice now but to attend the official debate today or risk being sanctioned by the KPU.

A senior legislator from her Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) conceded: ‘She is never comfortable on TV but she has no choice now…

‘It is her last chance to tell Indonesians who are still undecided that she has done a lot for the country.

‘She is spending a lot of time meeting ministers, reading prepared notes and rehearsing lines. We want her to be not just the prettiest candidate on TV. She must also look smart and charming.’

A medium rarely used in previous elections in Indonesia, TV has become difficult to ignore even though many people here say they are suffering election fatigue.

It has added a new dimension to campaigning, making inroads into urban and rural homes.

A survey by the Asia Foundation last year showed that two in three voters here watch TV almost every day. Three in four also said watching TV was how they kept informed about developments in the country.

In a presidential election which is primarily personality-driven, these viewership data carry even greater significance when the candidates appear on the screen. Their strengths – and weaknesses – are for all to see.

Some candidates have long realised its strategic value. Dr Amien, for example, zoomed in on the goggle box to increase his flagging popularity.

It may well be a tall order for Ms Megawati to fight him on TV. The media-savvy Dr Amien is on air almost every day talking about democracy, food prices, Aceh, and yes, even Euro 2004.

Fresh from his sparring sessions with others, especially Mr Bambang on at least three occasions in recent weeks, Dr Amien will be more than ready to take her on.

Mr Bambang, the former security czar, who is another regular on TV, will meet Mr Wiranto the following day together with Mr Hamzah who has shown little enthusiasm to take part in the debates.

But the focus will be the battle between the two generals who have so far avoided being pitted against each other on screen except for a singing contest.

Both camps realise that Indonesians will be scrutinising the generals closely. Analyst Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia noted: ‘There is this underlying fear of militarism returning to the country. People will want to know whether the generals can promise a better life for them, compared to a civilian leadership.’

In the end, the TV debates are mostly about style, much less about substance.

That flash of smile or appearing berwibawah – an Indonesian term to mean dignified – might generate precious votes in the July 5 election as the campaign winds up tomorrow.

Candidates know that they need to give the impression that they will be on top of things, if elected. That is why Ms Megawati and her rivals are cramming now.

Posted in Indonesia