DUNCAN GRAHAM Doing democracy differently

Outsiders who propped their eyelids apart to watch Indonesia’s third TV ‘debate’ ahead of next month’s national elections would have concluded the campaign is bloodless.

For 150 minutes – minus about a third for commercials and promos – vice president hopeful and hidebound Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, shared a platform with challenger and business tycoon Sandiaga Uno.

Amin is coupled to incumbent President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo; Uno supports former general Prabowo Subianto in his bid for the top job. In this show only the VP candidates performed.

The hand-me-downs used for reporting such events include ‘scoring points’, ‘going head-to-head’ and ‘landing heavy blows’. None of these clichés are relevant in analysing last Sunday’s soft encounter. (17 March).

Meanwhile, away from the formal forum other candidates are growling and slandering, desperate to contrive a crisis to sharpen differences. They have only four weeks left.

Amin has spent his life contemplating the Koran and negotiating a way through the labyrinth of Islamic politics to become head of the peak Islamic Scholars’ Council (MUI). He presents a yesteryear image, well out of whack with those claiming their nation is modern and progressive.

He’s short, plump, wears traditional Islamic garb, and at 76 moves slowly. He sprinkles Arabic phrases through his presentations, bemusing those who are only mildly religious, and seems ill at ease in the secular world.

His opponent Uno, 49, favors Western suits and casual gear. He’s a slim, US-educated articulate tycoon and said to be one of the nation’s richest men. He was deputy governor of Jakarta before this try-out on the national stage, and has reportedly been a hustings hit with millennials.

Before the ‘debate’ – really a set of mainly incontestable statements about the nation’s needs – forecasters said cosmopolitan Uno would blitz his opponent with know-how from his contact with commerce and Western ways.

Yet in the contest televised live from a Jakarta hotel before an audience of the Republic’s political elite, Uno positioned himself as subservient.

But this was not the underdog role played by Australian politicians trying to dampen their cocksure supporters when ahead in the polls.

Uno started by wishing Amin a week-late birthday greeting, and ended with a sungkem, the bowed hand-kissing gesture of respect for an elder.

In between he addressed him as Kyai (scholar) and Haji (one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca). Only gentle criticisms were offered with the rider these were not personal– tactics which would cozy him up to older voters who venerate religious leaders.

The event was over-produced with short, timed responses to formal written questions on education, culture, work and health. The last topic was undermined by commercials for fags, showing cool lads doing daring things in exotic locales, feats impossible without a nicotine fix.

No mention by either side of curbing smoking that kills an estimated half-million every year.

Also absent was any policy on how to cure the ills that both agreed are besetting the nation. Yes, the education system is a mighty mess. Opportunities are everywhere in the technology age, if only the schools knew what to teach.

Two million new entrepreneurs coming soon if I get in, said Uno. Watch out Shenzen, Jakarta will become Asia’s Silicone Valley once it knows how. Much of the road, rail and port projects now underway and funded by Beijing loans, are being supervised by Chinese engineers and technicians because few locals have the skills.

The national health scheme introduced by the Widodo government is claimed to be the biggest in the world. It also suffers gross fiscal pains as doctors and hospitals exploit the system, raising fees and pressing premiums up.

Uno said he’ll find a solution but didn’t say what. Amin promised more clinics and doctors, but failed to explain how he’ll get the medics out of the cities and into the backblocks where most needed.

Much was motherhood stuff – literally. In what seemed to be a pre-planned deal, the issue of stunted growth got onto the agenda. According to the Health Department one-in-three kids under five suffers some retardation. The men urged breast-feeding, maternal education and regular health checks. Who wouldn’t?

Had the two swapped sides and talking points, few would have noticed

Both candidates used jargon. ‘Link and match’ (in English) was Uno’s favourite while Amin sprinkled his prose with thanks to God; in Indonesia the Deity is involved in temporal affairs. ‘Infrastruktur’ sounds important so was tossed around willy-nilly.

The imagined outsider viewing this show of bland might conclude the campaign is civilized. Not so away from TV studios where the fake news furnace is pouring molten rumors into social media.

Popular is that Widodo is a lukewarm Muslin with a secret agenda to crush the growing Islamisation of the nation should he get a second five-year term.

Party organizers, stunned by the strength of this scuttlebutt, pushed hard-liner Amin as the VP candidate to blunt attacks. Widodo’s first choice was former chief justice Mohammad Mahfud, 61, a moderate cleric with proven legal and political skills.

The decision nonplussed modernists, as Amin is not the face of benign Islam. He’s on record condemning pluralism and homosexuality. Under his watch the MUI issued fatwa (Islamic decrees) against the minority Ahmadiyah sect leading to continuing persecution, murders and village destruction.

More recently the MUI prohibited a measles vaccine which allegedly uses human and pig cells – though has suspended a total ban as there’s no alternative.

Amin helped jail the former Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama by testifying against him in a contrived blasphemy trial, which led to a two-year jail sentence.

Uno let go any opportunity to attack Amin on his intolerance. His history won’t make the cleric welcome in the liberal West if he’s elected – which is most likely – though not if he confines trips to Arab states.

The pragmatic backroom candidate coachers know human rights are not foremost in the minds of Indonesia’s 187 million voters. Some TV channels preferred to screen soapies rather than the ‘debate’; they probably got bigger audiences.

Australian journalist Duncan Graham writes from East Java.

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