Left collaboration growing in Indonesia

By Max Lane

During the 1998 struggle against the Suharto dictatorship, there were threats that a deeper radicalisation might begin, as the most radical groups called for the establishment of “people’s councils” wherever mass protest was strong. More and more of Suharto’s elite supporters deserted him, forcing him to resign.

Between May and November 1998, a race occurred between the radical wing of the protest movement and those elements of Indonesia’s economic and political elite who wanted an end to the rule of Suharto’s clique. The radicals tried to mobilise support for a revolutionary replacement of the old regime. The elite opposition to Suharto wanted a transition without such an upheaval.

In the midst of mobilisations of hundreds of thousands in November 1998, some of which reached and occupied the surrounds of the national parliament, students forced key leaders of the elite opposition to meet and lobbied them to seize power in the name of the people. The elite refused, deciding that the transition must take place through elections organised by the new president, Suharto’s former vice-president, Bacharuddin Jusuf (B.J.) Habibie.

When news spread that the elite oppositionists had adopted that position, the majority of the student leadership of the mobilisations dispersed. Most of them had conceived of a revolutionary change of government — i.e., one outside the existing legal framework — as led by the elite opposition, in some kind of coalition. Except for a small minority, they could not yet conceive of the popular movement and its leaders carrying out this task.

Movement fragmentation

The voluntary dispersal of the popular mobilisations led to two major trends over the last 10 years. First, it surrendered control of formal politics in the newly won democratic political space, represented by a limited though still substantial return to parliamentary democracy.

The various factions and cliques among the propertied classes had the money and the ownership or access to media to set up political parties. Some still occupied positions in the three political parties permitted during the Suharto era or other permitted social and religious organisations. The Indonesian parliament today is overwhelmingly dominated by parties or religious organisations that were permitted to exist during the dictatorship, or are splits from such parties.

Among all these parties, there is general support for the extreme neo-liberal economic strategy that has been pursued since the string of emergency agreements with the International Monetary Fund that began in 1997. There is similar support for limiting political reforms in order to maintain their current dominance of the parliament.

Second, popular mobilisation became extremely fragmented. Widespread popular protest, provoked by rapidly multiplying grievances caused by neo-liberal austerity and deregulation, has persisted unabated over the last 10 years, but has not had any unifying focus or leadership centres.This fragmentation has been paralleled by a leadership fragmentation. Key groups that played a leadership role in the mass movement before 1998 have either disappeared or disintegrated.

The organisation that played the most conscious and systematic role in advocating and stimulating mass protest before 1998 was the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), which was founded in 1994. It has experienced its own process of fragmentation since 1998. At different stages almost all of its chairpersons have abandoned it to join moderate opposition or even conservative parties. Many other leading PRD activists from the 1990s have shifted to doing progressive NGO work rather than party work.

In 2007, the PRD was split when members who were then a minority were de facto expelled, eventually giving rise to two separate organisations. The “majority”, now usually referred to as PRD-Papernas, are prioritising an electoral coalition with one of the elite opportunist parties, the Star Reformation Party (PBR). The others, now formed as the Political Committee of the Poor — PRD (KPRM-PRD), are prioritising mass movement work (see interview with Zely Ariane in this issue of Direct Action.)

Other groups that had also played a leadership role in one way or another, such as PIJAR (a student activist grouping) and Forum Kota (a cross-campus student alliance covering 14 Jakarta universities) and similar groups have dispersed or fragmented.

Steps towards a united front

There has been increasing activity aimed at overcoming this fragmentation over the last year. There have been talks on establishing a joint newspaper and more recently the launching of Hands off Venezuela in Jakarta on March 28, in which almost all of the currently active left groups are participating. Their plans include working groups that will study the experience of the socialist revolution in Venezuela and what lessons can be drawn from it for Indonesia. This may provide the entry point for deepening the ideological life of the left, which had suffered 33 years of total suppression of left ideas.

The most significant development to date was the May 11 formation of the National Liberation Front (FPN), following an initiative of the Aliansi Buruh Mengugat (ABM — Workers Demands Alliance), to organise a joint action on May 21 against the government’s planned rise in fuel prices. May 21 is also the 10th anniversary of the fall of Suharto.

ABM is an alliance of left and progressive trade unions that have come together over the last five or so years. Some of the unions were formed by left activist groups, but most have sprung up from the workplace or broken away from old structures that had been controlled by the state before the fall of Suharto. They are a rather diverse mixture of initially enterprise-based unions, which have then formed various more or less ad hoc federations that later stabilised.

Twenty-two organisations put their names to the first statement issued by the FPN, which is still a united-front committee to organise actions, the first on May 21 and the next on June 1.

Apart from the ABM itself, the organisations joining include the three main socialist left political groupings: the Union of the Politics of the Poor, comprising members of KPRM-PRD and those working with them; the Working People’s Association, a socialist group started a few years ago and closely connected to the Congress of Indonesian Trade Union Alliances; and the Indonesian Students Union, which coordinates with the Jakarta Workers Union Federation. Other forces include the Indonesian Friends of the Earth group, WAHLI, the rural land reform-oriented Agrarian Reform Consortium and the anti-neoliberal globalisation think-tank, the Institute for Global Justice.

The May 21 and June 1 street protest actions are the first joint actions by these groups. A period of consolidation lies ahead, including building united work in the provincial centres. There can be no doubt, however, that an anti-fragmentation dynamic has now begun among the diverse left and progressive movement, which has rapidly grown over the last few years out of the discontent that has been sustained since the fall of the dictator. This dynamic is propelled by the quickening frustration among the poor, on the one hand, and the emergence of right-wing religious and right-wing nationalist and chauvinist initiatives to capture and lead this discontent.

The new dynamic is possible as a result of the steady and quiet work that has been happening in building new, and renewing older, progressive political formations so that they all feel confident to begin a new process of engagement.

[Max Lane is an honorary associate in Indonesian Studies, University of Sydney, and a long-time solidarity activist with the people of Indonesia.]