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Indonesia election

Indonesian VP candidates hold their fire a month before election

Cleric cites Arabic verses while businessman plays age card

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his running mate Islamic cleric Ma'ruf Amin (far right), opponents Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno (top) are seen in this photo taken in Jakarta, Sept.21, 2018.    © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Biting remarks and heated exchanges were noticeably absent during the sole debate Sunday night between Indonesia's two vice presidential candidates ahead of next month's presidential election.

Senior Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin, who was heavily criticized for barely speaking during a January debate that featured running mate and President Joko Widodo, surpassed expectations somewhat as he coherently presented the ticket's platforms on education, employment and other matters. But he stopped short of scrutinizing or criticizing his rival's platforms, settling instead for reading from notes on a number of occasions. Observers said direct attacks could do damage to Amin's reputation as a cleric.

Meanwhile, 49-year-old businessman Sandiaga Uno refrained from attacking the leader of the Indonesian Ulema Council, a gambit likely aimed at not alienating conservative Muslim voters that he and opposition leader Prabowo Subianto have courted heavily. Uno, though, took a jab at Amin's old age at the beginning of the televised debate, congratulating the cleric on recently turning 76 -- and contrasting that with his youthful persona, inserting the fact that he exercises regularly during a bit on promoting good health.

Uno, who initially was expected to beat Amin easily with his smooth talking and good looks, appeared to fail to make the most out of the debate. Instead, he was stuck repeating the same old mantras he and Subianto have repeated on many previous occasions -- such as a program for creating jobs and restricting the number of foreign workers, a group the opposition alleges is invading Indonesia and stealing locals' jobs.

When asked how he and Subianto will address the chronic budget deficits in the government's universal health care program, BPJS, Uno said, "We are committed to finding the roots of the problems in BPJS within the first 200 days in power." He mentioned this three times during the two-hour debate, but offered no practical solution.

Amin, meanwhile, mostly just defended the Widodo administration's ongoing programs -- saying improvements to implementing the health care program will continue while also saying that the number of foreign workers will remain under control. He said the government will roll out new benefits to help college students pay tuition and offer unemployment benefits, adding to a series of safety net programs Widodo has introduced during his presidency, a clear attempt to win favor with voters.

The lackluster performance of the vice presidential nominees in the third of five debates before the April 17 presidential vote contrasted with the barbs and heated exchanges seen between Widodo and Subianto in the first two debates. But that was to be expected, observers said.

"Ma'ruf Amin displayed the power of being underestimated. It became a blessing because people had not expected a lot from him," political analyst Burhanuddin Muhtadi said during a TV talk show after the debate. "As for Sandi, he has been overexposed, so it sounds like he was only repeating what we've already heard," Muhtadi said, using a nickname for Uno.

Amin used the occasion to underscore his Muslim credentials, citing some Islamic and Arabic references while presenting his education and health care platforms. Widodo's choice of Amin as running mate was widely seen as an attempt to shield the president from his opponents' relentless attacks on his Muslim identity -- which almost cost him the presidency in his first matchup with Subianto in 2014.

The audience was for the most part unimpressed. Many on Twitter used the hashtag #debatselo ("slow debate") or words such as "boring" and "lukewarm" to describe the proceedings, while mocking lame answers from each candidate.

Nevertheless, many observers have noted that the debates in general -- let alone the one Sunday night between the VP hopefuls -- are unlikely to sway voters whose minds are already made up.

Recent opinion polls suggest Widodo continues to lead with more than 50% support, as opposed to Subianto's 30%.

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