Bambang comes out on top in first televised dialogue

INDONESIAN ELECTION
4 DAYS TO THE POLLS

NEWS ANALYSIS

The calm and soft-spoken moderator knitted her eyebrows and pursed her lips as she struggled to control the panellists.

TVRI host Natalia Soebagyo was forced to interrupt them as they fielded questions to the two presidential candidates in separate live TV broadcasts on Tuesday night. Her repeated pleas of ‘can you please get to the point’ or ‘your time is up’ fell on deaf ears.

The bunch of academics and experts wanted their questions to be heard. But if they thought they were going to be the stars of the night, they were wrong.

On the first day of the televised ‘dialogue sessions’, which under new election rules replaced the vibrant rallies of past polls, that honour may well go to former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono instead of President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Mr Rachmat Witoelar, a senior political adviser to Mr Bambang, told The Straits Times: ‘It was mission accomplished. Bambang went before the screen and explained to voters what he can do for them.

‘Ms Megawati, however, has some more homework to do. She was not able to answer or understand some questions. I am sure the voters will be able to tell who is better.’

This view was shared by independent commentators.

Said political observer Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia: ‘Bambang was more persuasive and had a better grasp of the problems facing the country. For Indonesians, this will be an important factor.

‘Indonesia has had three leaders since Suharto and none of them has come up with solutions to our problems. On that score, Bambang will win a big vote of confidence from a large number of the undecided voters who will be watching these sessions.’

Looking relaxed in a black suit and peci headgear, Mr Bambang had an answer to almost anything his four-man panel threw at him.

For example, he said he had no qualms about sacking senior government officials involved in graft.

To fight terrorism, he stressed the need to improve the operational effectiveness of intelligence agencies by equipping them with the latest technology and improving coordination between different bodies.

The retired general’s most significant accomplishment, however, was to assuage concerns about how he might rule with an iron fist and bring the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) back into power.

He also addressed, with some levity, concerns about the involvement of generals in business.

‘My military friends will be happier not to dabble in business if the TNI was allocated a healthy budget,’ he said.

Said a seasoned Jakarta-based diplomat: ‘The panellists tried hard through their questions to paint the image of Bambang as a Suharto-type military strongman. But he came out looking like a reformer.’

In marked contrast, the President’s lacklustre performance only highlighted the growing sense of frustration in her camp.

She did put up a much better showing compared to her television performances of the past, appearing more forceful on issues such as fighting terrorism and the threat of separatism in Indonesia.

But she made some glaring mistakes.

She appeared unable to comprehend some questions, including when asked whether she would appoint a minister to oversee the recently formed Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

But some of her backers were critical of the dialogue format, saying that she did not have enough time to answer questions.

Mr Pramono Anung of her Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle said: ‘The only problem was the lack of time. How can we explain what we have done and plan to do in just one hour?’

But even within her election team, there was a growing view that Mr Bambang might win a few more votes based on his TV performance.

A palace aide noted: ‘There is only so much we can do to prepare Ibu Mega for the show. On a score of one to 10, I would give her a six. But Bambang would get nine.’

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