Medan, Indonesia – As the vice presidential candidates took to the stage for Indonesia’s second televised presidential debate on Friday, all eyes were on Gibran Rakabuming Raka – perhaps the most controversial vice presidential candidate in Indonesia’s history.
Batting away charges of inexperience and nepotism, Gibran, the 36-year-old son of current Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi’ Widodo, dominated the stage despite being up against more experienced candidates.
The verdict among observers generally was that Gibran’s performance far exceeded expectations.
“My overall impression was that any doubters who thought Gibran was a clueless lightweight have been proven completely wrong,” Alexander Arifianto, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore (RSIS), told Al Jazeera.
“He was well-prepped for the debate and showed he has an excellent grasp on economic issues. Much better than his two opponents.”
Since he announced his candidacy in October, Gibran has faced a storm of controversy, including accusations of being a “nepo baby” and a continuation of the dynastic politics that have long plagued Indonesia’s politics.
With no political experience apart from a two-year stint as the mayor of the city of Surakarta in Central Java, Gibran has been accused of riding on his father’s coattails – Widodo also served as mayor of Surakarta – and lacking the bona fides of rival candidates Abdul Muhaimin Iskandar, the deputy speaker of parliament, and Mahfud MD, a minister responsible for coordinating political, legal and security affairs.
Gibran’s candidacy was facilitated by a controversial ruling by the Constitutional Court of Indonesia in October that loosened the minimum age requirement for presidential and vice presidential candidates.
While the court upheld the minimum age threshold of 40 in principle, the judges carved out an exception allowing officials who are at least 35 to run if they have been previously elected to office – allowing Gibran to become Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto’s running mate ahead of the February 14 election.
The ruling was particularly contentious as the then-head of the Constitutional Court, Anwar Usman, was Widodo’s brother-in-law.
Usman was removed from his position after the Constitutional Court ethics committee found him at fault for not recusing himself from the decision, although the ruling on the age requirement was allowed to stand.
With questions swirling about the legitimacy of Gibran’s candidacy and his suitability for office, his debut on the debate stage on Friday evening had been hotly anticipated.
“Straight away: This debate was won by Gibran. So far, expectations for Gibran have been very low. Basically, Gibran has never been tested. In the first presidential debate, he looked like an oddity: a high school student surrounded by seasoned politicians and governors,” Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in West Java, told Al Jazeera.
“In this debate, his performance was much better than the two people I had expected to eat him for lunch, namely Mahfud MD and Muhaimin. It was clear that he was prepared, confident, and had mastered the material, perhaps having been thoroughly trained by his debate preparation team.”
The second of five televised debates, and the first to feature the vice presidential candidates, was focused on the economy, including issues such as taxes, trade, management of the state budget, infrastructure and urban planning.
Dandy Rafitrandi, an economist with the think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the questions set by a panel of experts were quite specific and required each candidate to understand economic topics.
The candidates’ weak grasp of economics was noticeable at times, Rafitrandi said, including when the questions turned to funding government projects and programmes.
“Gibran explained several programmes, for example, a free lunch programme [for civil servants] worth 400 trillion Indonesian Rupiah [$25.8bn], but did not explain the source of the funding,” Rafitrandi told Al Jazeera.
At another point during the debate, Muhaimin said that he and presidential candidate Anies Baswedan, the former governor of Jakarta, wanted to build 40 new cities across Indonesia to rival Jakarta – without explaining how these would be paid for.
The main flashpoint of the evening came when the candidates sparred over Nusantara, Indonesia’s new capital city, which is currently being built in the jungles of Kalimantan.
The plan, which was spearheaded by Widodo, involves moving Jakarta, which is crowded, choked with smog and sinking due to illegal groundwater extraction, at a projected cost of $1.3bn.
The project has struggled to secure foreign investment, which was envisaged to cover the majority of its hefty price tag, and has only attracted local investors, something which Mahfud questioned Gibran about given his support for the plan.
Gibran replied that Mahfud could “Google” who was investing in the project and attacked Muhaimin for being “inconsistent” after previously backing the scheme.
Mahfud also previously supported Nusantara, and only Anies and Muhaimin have said that they would cancel the project if elected, arguing the money could be better spent elsewhere in Kalimantan and other parts of the country.
Nusantara is not expected to be a deciding factor in the election, with some recent polls showing that Prabowo and Gibran have a 20-point lead over Ganjar Pranowo, the former governor of Central Java, and Mahfud MD.
“Gibran was the clear winner of tonight’s debate. It has set the bar high and it will be tougher for both Anies’s and Ganjar’s teams to catch up with them, especially when it comes to economy and investment issues,” RSIS’s Arifianto said.
“Sadly, both Mahfud and Muhaimin are single-issue candidates who are good only for their issues [law and religious issues respectively] but not so good in others.”
However, not everyone was impressed with Gibran’s dynamic performance, saying that it placed style above substance.
“He was better rehearsed compared to the other two candidates, which will likely impress some voters. However, his responses lacked policy substance, relying on a combination of slogans and factoids,” Ian Wilson, a lecturer in politics and security studies at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, told Al Jazeera.
But while Gibran may want to get away from the “nepo baby” tag, it may be difficult to shake off his family’s image altogether, Wilson added.
“Gibran showed that he is, despite attempts to brand himself as a fresh thinking millennial, very much still his father’s son, doubling down on a commitment to continuing signature Jokowi policies such as the Nusantara capital city project,” he said.