Tue, Jun 29, 2004 - Page 4 News List

Election debates get mixed response

INDONESIA Politicians aren't used to having to articulate their policies in public; in fact, high school debating captains claim they can do a lot better

REUTERS , Jakarta

An unidentified Jakarta cigarette vendor looks out from his shack that has been covered with election posters in Jakarta yesterday. The July 5 polls are the first in which Indonesia's 210 million people will choose their leader directly, and are a key step in the sprawling nation's path to democracy.

PHOTO: AP

High school debating star Astrid Kusumawardhani thinks she can out-debate any of Indonesia's five presidential candidates.

"They think that one-liner promises can impress the general public. Of course, I can do better," said the captain of the school debating team that beat squads from Europe to rank 13th overall in this year's world championship.

"They're scared to be straightforward and really take a stance on any issue," said Kusumawardhani, who is from Indonesia's main island of Java and Muslim, as are four of the five presidential contenders.

Traditionalists in Indonesia say debate goes against the culture, which emphasizes avoiding confrontation.

That hasn't stopped television stations from striving to pit the candidates against each other but so far none has succeeded in getting more than two of them at the same time.

And none has got the candidates to directly debate each other. They have only accepted offers where they face panels.

"All of them refuse to be in a cross-fire debate. They say they don't want to offend each other," said Tomi Satryatomo, who produces a debate program at Trans TV.

The station did manage to get four vice-presidential candidates on one stage, in the only debate so far of that size.

Satryatomo said President Megawati Sukarnoputri, seeking another term, was too demanding and hard to get for debates and the station eventually stopped asking her.

But no presidential candidate can run away from a general election commission (KPU) 90-minute debate on June 30, a week before voters choose their leader for the first time in history.

However, that mandatory contest also will only force candidates to answer a panel of experts. They will be barred from querying a rival, fearing reaction from supporters who cannot handle the heat such direct challenges might arouse.

Brief swipes at a rival's answer to the panel are allowed if the moderator permits. Heckling is out of the question.

"KPU has failed to grab this golden opportunity and chose to to be too cautious," said Indra Jaya Piliang, a political analyst from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Among the candidates, only former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and supreme legislature chief Amien Rais -- ranked one and two in a survey this month -- had faced off in debates on major issues, all sponsored by private groups.

Former military chief Wiranto, nominee of the Golkar party that topped the April parliamentary elections, had faced off with Rais before but that was on the topic of football.

Media-shy Megawati has only recently -- with her job on the line -- started to accept significant numbers of interviews and let reporters fire queries at her during news conferences. But she has not yet taken up a debate offer.

"Megawati will attend the KPU-controlled debate. Previously, she was too busy going down and meeting the people. She is not afraid of public debates," said campaign manager Pramono Anung.

Many voters still seek a candidate who can articulate a message in depth and defend it with eloquence and logic.

"The debates so far are superficial, have no dynamic response and lack clear stances on tangible issues," said Ria Nuri Dharmawan, who heads the Association for Critical Thinking, a group that introduces debate to high schools across the country.

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