JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A Suharto-era general running for the Indonesian presidency was forced to defend his human rights record during the first televised debate of the campaign — a contest many observers thought was won by his opponent, former Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo.
The general, Prabowo Subianto, has been running about 10 points behind in opinion polls, and was looking to close that gap amid a perception that Widodo lacks the experience needed to run the country of 240 million.
But Widodo's performance in Monday night's debate more than matched Subianto's.
Known as "Jokowi," Widodo picked former Vice President Jusuf Kalla as his running mate for the July 9 election, and the pair are backed by a coalition of political parties, raising the prospect they might be able to push through economic reforms and tackle corruption if elected.
As governor Widodo won plaudits for trying to tackle traffic congestion and flooding, rolled out a new health insurance program, expanded free schooling for the poor and started construction on a long-awaited subway line.
His running mate, Kalla, landed the only blow of the night by challenging Subianto over allegations he abducted pro-democracy activists in 1998 at the end of three decades of hardline rule by Suharto.
Subianto appeared flustered and said: "I am a former soldier who has done his duty as best as I can."
Opinion polls have shown support for Subianto, a former son-in-law of ex-dictator Suharto, firming up in recent weeks. He got a boost when Golkar, the second-largest party in the country, announced it would join the coalition nominating him and not field its own candidate.
His running mate, Hatta Rajasa, is as the current economic minister.
The Jakarta Post published a commentary Tuesday criticizing Subianto's response to the question on the activists as sadly unremorseful.
The newspaper said it was hard to be convinced by Subianto's statements on protecting plurality, while Widodo and Kalla can point to their records on the matter.
This will be Indonesia's first election in which only two candidates are running for president, removing the need for a possible runoff.