Mega, Bambang battle it out on TV

Indonesia’s presidential contenders yesterday launched their final battles on television, both pledging to get tough on terrorism, as the country entered the last stretch of a seven-month-long campaign.

Under new rules for Monday’s polls, incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri and challenger Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are to make their final pitches on television over three successive nights.

In place of street rallies and door-to-door canvassing, Ms Megawati and former general Bambang will appear before a selected panel, giving their take on issues of the day and answering unscripted questions.

Last night, Ms Megawati defended her government’s record on fighting terror, just days after Jakarta was rocked by a car-bombing that left nine people dead.

‘Terrorism can take place anywhere. Let us take the example of the United States … the Twin Towers Sept 11 incident could not be prevented,’ she said, stressing the difficulty of stopping suicide bombers in moving

The 57-year-old media-shy leader asked the panellists to repeat questions occasionally.

But overall she appeared calmer than in an earlier TV appearance in July, rarely referring to her notes as she vowed to step up security and touted her achievements in fighting separatism and corruption, and restoring stability to the economy.

‘Efforts to create a sense of security and comfort for the people will become an important agenda of our government,’ she pledged.

Mr Bambang, who took to the stage after Ms Megawati, vowed too to strengthen local enforcement agencies.

‘All the agencies, the police and the state intelligence body, need to work closer together. They also need to work with their foreign counterparts,’ he said, as usual delivering his lines smoothly.

Election officials decided to confine the candidates final pitches to the television to ensure an orderly and peaceful conclusion to a campaign that started in March.

Compared to the noisy parades and colourful rhetoric of earlier public rallies, last night’s TV appearances seemed somewhat anti-climatic.

But voters are likely to scrutinise the candidates’ performances closely.

A survey by the Asia Foundation last year showed that two-thirds of voters here watch TV almost every day – a fact that’s likely to have a bearing in a presidential election that is personality and image driven.

More so as many middle-class swing voters are expected to watch the final broadcasts, according to one Golkar observer.

Campaign rules state each candidate will have an hour-long session before a four-man panel to speak on a range of themes. Economic and cultural issues will dominate discussions today and Thursday.

But clearly the session on politics and security last night was the most critical, especially for Ms Megawati, after last Thursday’s deadly bombing.

For undecided voters – which opinion polls show comprise a fifth of the 140-million-strong electorate – the latest terrorist strike could be the decisive swing factor in a tight contest.

With three terrorist bombings in the last two years under her watch, Ms Megawati went before the panel last night with a lot more to lose if she performed badly. A confidential survey carried out by her own team suggested that she was trailing Mr Bambang by 20 percentage points.

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