Electricity rate hikes unite Indonesian opposition

Around 800 demonstrators from the National Movement for the Cancellation of Basic Electricity Rate Hikes and the Reduction of Prices held a protest action at the State Palace in central Jakarta on August 7. The movement is a broad alliance involving more than 45 organisations. Actions were also held in Medan (North Sumatra), Bandung (West Java), Makassar (South Sulawesi), Ternate (North Maluku), Surabaya (East Java) and Samarinda (East Kalimantan). Earlier, around 80 protesters from Perempuan Mahardhika (Free Women) held a one-hour action at the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry and then joined the protest at the palace.

The national action was a concrete form of united people’s power against the puppet capitalist regime of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice-President Boediono, the parliament and the bourgeois political parties.

On July 1 the Yudhoyono government began the gradual withdrawal of the electricity subsidy, resulting in an average increase to the basic electricity rate of 10%. It is proposing a further increase of 15% in early 2011. The justification for this was increases in the cost of electricity generator components, resulting in a blow-out of basic supply costs for the state electricity company, PLN. It was also influenced by the rising cost of Indonesian crude oil, which is expected to reach US$80 a barrel, and an expected increase in electricity demand of 6.6% in 2010 and 7.4% in 2011.

Many have rejected these arguments. PLN trade union chairperson Daryoko said that the real reason for the price hikes was the government’s desire to privatise PLN, particularly in Java and Bali. Daryoko added that PLN recorded profits of 10.36 trillion rupiah ($1=8100 rupiah) in 2009, so there are no grounds to increase prices.

Indonesian Labour Movement Union (PPBI) general secretary Budi Wardoyo agreed, asserting that the government is lying. The real reason for the increases is to meet standard business profit levels prior to the privatisation of PLN. Wardoyo also said price hike was closely linked to the 2011 draft state budget, the largest portion of which will be used to pay foreign debt, which has now reached 116.4 trillion rupiah, while the budget for social welfare stands at only 61.5 trillion. The government has been cutting the electricity and other subsidies since it signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Monetary Fund in 1998.

Movement dynamics

There have been ongoing efforts to build movement unity in Indonesia and to take advantage of different issues to do this. One successful form of this was the establishment of the National Unity Front (FPN) in 2008, which was dominated by left organisations and independent trade unions. Although it survived for less than three months, the political atmosphere created by the FPN was quite broad, as proven by the establishment of FPN not just in Jakarta, but also in other parts of the country.

Another attempt was made in late 2009 by a united front called the Indonesian People’s Opposition Front (FORI) which was initiated by the People’s Working Association (PRP). Unlike the National Liberation Front (FPN), FORI was largely dominated by NGOs and organisations linked with the PRP, and the involvement of the left was limited and eventually ended because of the minimal democratic space within FORI.

When the Yudhoyono government withdrew the electricity subsidy, it was seen as an opportunity to consolidate the movements. The first consolidation meeting occurred on July 21, initiated by the Workers Challenge Alliance (ABM), the Indonesian Transportation Trade Union of Struggle (SBTPI), the PPBI, the Greater Jakarta Workers Front of Struggle (FPBJ), the Student Struggle Centre for National Liberation (Pembebasan), the Indonesian Student Union (SMI), Perempuan Mahardhika, the Political Union of the Poor (PPRM), the Indonesian Struggle Union (PPI) and the Political Committee of the Poor-People’s Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD). It was attended by 66 people from 28 organisations, including trade unions, student groups, women’s organisations, youth groups, urban poor organisations and non-sectoral groups such as the PPI, the KPRM-PRD, the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) and the PPRM. During the preparatory process, the number of organisations grew to 45, with the PRP and FORI joining later.

This was the first occasion in a long time that left and democratic elements were able to hold united mobilisations and build political unity. There were many organisations, and of course many different interests. One of the very positive things that came out of the alliance was the democratic space available for different opinions and debate.

The debate on political issues was a long one. Some were of the opinion that it would be better if the political target were just the Yudhoyono government, others were of the view that it should not be just Yudhoyono and Boediono but also the parliament, while others said the target should be just PLN. Through this discussion a joint agreement was born on what political position to take, namely that the Yudhoyono government and the parliament had failed to bring prosperity to the people.

Following this, there was discussion on the solution for the Indonesian people, in which PPBI’s Wardoyo offered the proposal of nationalisation under people’s control. Bin Bin Tresnadi from the PRD disagreed, saying that there was no one solution because a longer discussion was needed and the PRD has a different position on nationalisation. This kind of dynamic was extremely positive in improving a still very new spirit of unity.

Crimes against the people

The August 7 national actions were a fight against the growing crimes against the people by the Yudhoyono government and the parliament, as part of their subservience to the owners of capital, particularly foreign capital.

The national actions brought a new hope for maintaining and broadening unity among the movements. As conveyed by SBTPI chairperson Ilhamsyah, in order to replace the Yudhoyono government, what is needed is democratic and broad unity from the movement groups, free of intervention by the political elite and their political parties, unity that has a national structure and is capable of holding simultaneous actions across the country.

Although considered quite successful in terms of uniting resistance, the August 7 actions were still not enough to drive back those in power. The strength of the movement must be broadened further and provide the impetus for ordinary people to become involved in it.

“The political movements are working together and developing. Our problem in the movement is how to make them stronger. Strength together with the people is what is most formidable, with unity between the people’s movement itself as one front. Not unity with the capitalist regime (the government and parliament), which have been proven to have failed and not be part of the people’s movement front”, said Pembebasan chairperson Mutiara Ika Pratiwi.

Following the August 7 actions, the alliance will be organising other events, the next being a discussion on the theme: Challenging 65 Years of Independence of the Republic of Indonesia, Building a New Politics.

[Vivi Widyawati is the international relations officer for the Perempuan Mahardhika and a member of the KPRM-PRD.]