Indonesia's presidential hopefuls came face to face last night for the first in a series of televised debates that will take place every week until the election on 9 July. The theme of the debate, determined by the General Elections Commission (KPU), was 'Developing Democracy, Clean Governance and Legal Certainty'. Candidates Prabowo Subianto and Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo were joined by their respective running mates, Hatta Rajasa and Jusuf Kalla.

Visually, the pairs represented a stark choice: Jokowi and Kalla in matching black suits, while Prabowo and Hatta wore blinding white. The performance of the candidates in the debate showed a similar contrast.

The theme was safe ground for Jokowi, whose rise to the presidential candidacy was spurred by his performance as a mayor and governor, roles in which he has been credited with cleaning up local bureaucracies. It was also solid rhetorical ground for Prabowo, who lists bureaucratic reform as one of his key objectives.

However, activist groups earlier expressed disappointment that human rights would not be specifically addressed by the moderator in the debate. Controversy has surrounded Prabowo and Hatta's campaign due to long-standing allegations regarding Prabowo's role as military commander during the May 1998 anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta, and the reported kidnapping, torture and disappearance of student activists under his watch, allegations for which he was dismissed from the military.

In a segment addressing discrimination and violence, Prabowo pointed to his support for Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese, as Jokowi's running mate in the election for Jakarta governor. 'I strongly defended (Ahok) when he was under attack by those saying someone from a minority could not become deputy governor,' Prabowo said.

But the Jokowi-Kalla side were not content to leave it at this level of tokenism. When given the chance to ask questions of their opponents, the pair went straight for the big question: 'How would you resolve past human rights abuses and protect human rights for the people?' Kalla asked Prabowo.

Prabowo seemed prepared for the unscripted question, but was clearly unhappy about having to answer it. 'I know where you're going with this,' he said to Kalla, causing a stir in the audience that was supposed to remain quiet for the duration of the debate. Prabowo outlined his former position as a soldier whose greatest concerns were protecting the right to life and following orders. Referring to the events of 1998, he said, 'If you want to ask about that, ask those who were my superiors at the time.' The brief moment of heat under the starched white collar appeared as a lapse in an otherwise controlled performance.

For the rest of the debate, Prabowo spoke loudly and forcefully, repeating the crafted messages contained in the vision statement and mission statement of his candidacy, backed by the dry commentary of his running mate, Hatta. The pair spoke of their plans to tackle key sectors such as food and energy security, infrastructure and bureaucratic reform, including by inviting investment. The campaign message was also repeated: keep Indonesia's wealth inside the country and don't allow it to be 'leaked' out into foreign hands. As Stephen Grenville wrote earlier for The Interpreter, both sides have launched nationalistic economic policies, though the question of how they will be implemented will likely remain unclear until after the election.

Meanwhile, Jokowi spoke slowly in his thick Javanese accent, using simple language that often strayed into informal parlance. In many instances, he was lucky to have Kalla, who could drive home in less than a minute an argument that Jokowi had tried and failed to articulate for twice as long. While Jokowi struggled through questions of party politics and social discrimination, he was most at ease speaking about issues of regional governance. When Prabowo and Hatta mentioned the human obstacles to enhancing education and reforming regional bureaucracies, Jokowi turned the argument around. The human resources are fine, he said. It's the system that needs to be reformed, and that will require political will, particularly from the central government.

It's this kind of statement that has brought Jokowi his popular appeal. It says that reform is within reach, and that anyone can be president, regardless of their position in society or their educational background. Just to see the former furniture salesman standing on the debate stage with the likes of old elite figure such as Prabowo, Hatta and Kalla sends a message that the upper rungs of politics are within reach for ordinary Indonesians.

In the end, the question is whether either of the candidate's messages have the capacity to move beyond being image-building tools, and actually be translated into clean governance, enforced rule of law and a more developed democracy.