Indonesia: where do we go from here?

We undertake united front work because it is a principal tactic with which to bring broader layers of the poor majority into the movement challenging the power of the ruling class. It is a tool to bring together and mobilise different forces and build consciousness on a common platform of struggle. For revolutionary forces, it is also an arena to propagate the strategic aims of socialism through overthrowing pro-capitalist and imperialist governments and their state and establishing a government of the working class and the poor.


August 7 protest against electricity price hikes, Yogyakarta.

The majority of the Third World’s working poor have a dream: equality and prosperity. It is a matter of life and death. No one will give it to us. Because that dream is a political one, the struggle must also be political.

Socialism of the 21st century fits with this dream. Genuine socialism has learnt from the 20th century’s mistakes. It will be a socialism that is democratic and participatory, ecological and feminist something like Venezuela and Cuba, two countries from which we have gained so many lessons.

The suffering of the billions of poor in the world is caused by capitalism, ruling through its small capitalist class and its supporters. In describing these political forces in Indonesia, we have called them the five political enemies of the people: imperialism and pro-imperialist puppet governments, the remnants of former dictator Suharto’s New Order, the fake reformist political parties, the military and the reactionary militias.

To bring down capitalism and imperialism, the people themselves have to mobilise. This will give a political foundation to a government of the poor: to build national industry by and for the people; to concentrate domestic funding; to fulfil the immediate demands of the people (and build national industry); and to develop a progressive culture.

Today’s poor of around 140 million of Indonesia’s population of 250 million live on less than US$2 a day. This cannot be tolerated, so we prioritise campaigning for 10 immediate demands of the people. We call these immediate not just because the content is a matter of life and death but also because people are already mobilised around and discussing these demands.

Those demands are: (1) lower prices of basic commodities; (2) free health care and education; (3) a reasonable minimum wage and employment opportunities for all; (4) affordable housing, clean water, energy and transportation; (5) democratic political and electoral laws, (6) the straightening out of Indonesia’s written history; (7) the trial of human rights violators and dissolution of the Indonesian military’s territorial command structure; (8) the trial and seizure of Suharto’s, his cronies’ and other big corrupters’ assets; (9) a 50% quota for women in all public offices; (10) rehabilitation of the environment. The recent attacks on the freedom of religious expression, the press and women’s rights also raise demands that need to be campaigned for.

When we propagandise for people’s power as one of the five principal solution for Indonesian people, it means people’s independent organisations and a united people’s movement; direct participation in democracy; a government of the poor; education that is scientific and equitable, with development of technology and sustainable natural resources; healthy, productive and free human beings in solidarity with each other and a mentality of resistance.

This is also our platform for joint work. United fronts can be based on one or more common programs or aims in the short or long term.

Importance of August 7 protests

On August 7 in Jakarta, at least 40 grassroots and people’s organisations under the banner of the National Movement took to the street to oppose increases in the prices of electricity and basic commodities. Similar mobilisations took place in at least six large cities with hundreds to a thousand participating. To have this many taking part was good given that the momentum had passed: the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) announced the electricity hike on July 1, while the increases to basic commodities had been ongoing for some time.

The initiative to bring these forces together came in July from the Indonesian Struggle Union (PPI), the Political Union of the Poor (PPRM) and Indonesian Transportation Trade Union of Struggle (SBTPI), all of which are radical left forces.

Entering its second term, the Yudhoyono government has been the target of constant protests over its anti-people economic policies and issues of corruption and democracy. In general, spontaneous protest actions were also widely dispersed. Meanwhile, the left was not able to consistently present a political alternative on the national stage. That is also why the many spontaneous and fragmented protests have gone nowhere and in many cases were defeated, leaving their participants demoralised.

Objectively, the left has a very good opportunity to present an alternative. The problem mostly lies in subjective factors.

The other significant challenge is to formulate tactics in a way that can create and maintain a political atmosphere of resistance and at the same time find ways to speak to and reach out broadly to the masses. The August 7 initiative was part of this process. Prior to August 7, the main left and democratic forces consolidated in a fragmented way under different projects and vehicles.

The Workers Challenge Alliance (ABM) was established in 2006 as a progressive confederation of workers. The objective conditions for it to develop were the radicalisation of workers in 2004-05 against an anti-labour ministerial decree and draft revisions to the labour law. On every May Day since then, the ABM has articulated the demands of more radical workers and mobilised no fewer than 5000 workers in Jakarta and thousands across the country.

The Indonesian Trade Union Congress Alliance (KASBI), the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggle, the SBTPI and the Greater Jakarta Workers Federation of Struggle have been the main forces behind the ABM. Several months ago however, KASBI, the biggest trade union in the ABM, decided to leave primarily because it was unwilling to wait any longer for ABM to become a confederation, and KASBI’s membership had been pushing for KASBI itself to become a confederation since 2009. The ABM also in 2008 facilitated the establishment of the National Liberation Front (FPN), another radical united front. But the FPN ceased to exist with the dissipation of the fuel price campaign.

The establishment of the Indonesian People’s Opposition Front (FORI) was led by the Working People’s Association (PRP) and KASBI in Jakarta, and gained support from some other left forces including ourselves in early 2010. In its call for an action on January 28, there were 17 signatures of grassroots organisations in Jakarta. At first, there were two different processes of consolidation at the “national” and “Jakarta” levels, but then it managed to unite into one alliance comprising 47 organisations, many of them NGOs. This also happened in several other large cities, with more or less similar groups participating, but some with different names for the alliance.

Establishing FORI as an alternative vehicle for the people’s opposition was a good idea, but the problem lay in the fact that you cannot push unity from above. It should be a democratic process supported by different initiatives in different regions. Of course it would be good, especially for political campaigning, to have the same united front name throughout Indonesia, but we cannot force all the groups to adopt the same name. This was one of the differences in tactical approach between us and the PRP.

The SBTPI appears to have a similar position. Its leader, Ilhamsyah, said in June: “We understand the need for left unity, but this has to be organised democratically and equally among the different groups that established it, meaning not to judge different organisations based on their size. We consider there was an undemocratically organised process in the formation of the national FORI and greater Jakarta FORI ...”

These differences also resulted in different mobilisations on May Day, the ABM and FORI establishing new action committees and mobilising separately. Recently, these two forces appear to be facing more problems. There is little news about FORI consolidation or actions, especially in the regions. The ABM is also having problems convincing people and maintaining its project to organise a national conference.

The platforms of the two groups are more or less the same, especially in their position on the need for an independent movement to challenge and replace the political elite and pro-capitalist government and present an alternative of the anti-imperialist movement. But again, this is still a process of finding a better approach to build a larger radical movement.

August 7 was a step forward because it united both main forces, as well as the People’s Democratic Party (PRD). It was the first time that the PRD and the KPRM-PRD worked together in a united front since they split in 2007, and was in fact a kind of “reunion” for the PRD, which had been absent from and not prioritised left unity since their 2009 election intervention, which we saw as being on opportunist parliamentary lines.

Although the August 7 movement was closer to an action committee than a form of strategic or long-term unity, it represented a stage in the process, and we need to think about a formulation to maintain the common project together with propaganda for a more strategic consolidation.

Three meetings were held in August to discuss the future of Indonesia and a common response to the first year of the second term of the Yudhoyono administration. The idea to have a series of regular discussions was a good one, and the debate that developed during the course of the three discussions was useful. Of the different groups that participated unfortunately the PRP could not see and learn from the different approaches to strategy and tactics between, for example, us and the PRD.

The main differences have now become obvious. The PRD advocate what they call “progressive nationalism” under the banner of “Sukarnoism” and see the Yudhoyono government as the main enemy. They propagandise for broad anti-neoliberal unity against the government. In doing this, they can easily switch between prioritising left movement intervention and the parliamentary opportunism of an “anti-SBY government”. For them, it is a matter of balancing between parliament and the left, the latter being less important.

However, we can still work with the PRD, as long as it is not in contradiction with building the movement. For us, it will be contradictory and obstruct the development of the people’s movement if the PRD seek to subjugate it to or create the illusion as they did in 2009 that the political parties in the parliament are tactical allies.

Subjective factors

The urgent task for the Indonesian left and people’s movement is having a larger intervention in national politics to compete with the bourgeoisie’s political hegemony. The left has the capacity for a bigger and wider political influence. The FPN in 2008 is one of the best examples of this.

The FPN experience and the People’s Struggle Front in 2008 show that if the left and people’s movement unite, they can play a leading role in the national political arena, and can provide an alternative leadership for the spontaneous and fragmented protests that are taking place across the country.

But this will not automatically lead to the advancement of the left. Some efforts have been made through publishing four editions of the Journal of Unity, but the project was unable to be maintained for a variety of reasons. Other efforts were undertaken, mostly by the PPI, the PPRM and the PRP, through discussions in 2009 to continue the collaboration through the Left League. But this process has also stalled.

Problems and challenges

All left forces are calling for and pressing for unity. But this unity has failed to really develop and grow due to the strategic differences. The main problem probably lies in understanding (and consciousness) about the politics of united front work, since it is also quite a new tactical approach for the Indonesian left.

A good general line for left unity would be: for the left to publish its own progressive journal; working in unity they can have a greater political influence and bigger mobilisations and also can present their own political leadership; organising joint Marxist and political education, as ABM has done recently; developing as a pole of attraction for the spontaneous movement.

The other challenge is the dynamic between each organisation’s existence and activities and united front work: how to combine the two. United front work and organisational development are dialectical. The bigger the movement brought together by united front work, the bigger the chance is for each organisation to develop, or even unite together, and at the same time the bigger the chance for the people to win against the state.

Another problem is the notion of the “main enemy”. The very dangerous aspect of this notion is seeing one faction of the bourgeoisie as more evil than others. All the political elite in the government and legislature are equally dangerous. All of them support capitalist neoliberal agendas, although of course some play the role of fake opposition on certain policies. This is the kind of politics still being played by the PRD with their “progressive or Sukarnoist nationalism”.

There is no section of the Indonesian bourgeoisie that has the will or interest to break with imperialism. All elements of the bourgeoisie are dependent upon foreign capital, and they all compete to be the best agent of imperialism. The capitalist elite do not have the capacity to overcome the country’s problems. There’s no “national” bourgeoisie that can play a dominant role in the political area. And none of the elite politicians have any popular legitimacy.

What we want to campaign for is the unity of the people’s movement against imperialism and the pro-imperialist government and establishing the people’s movement’s own political vehicle, whatever the form. Initially, a form of unity and consolidation based on anti-neoliberalism, anti-capitalism/imperialism or even simply anti-poverty and for other democratic issues would benefit the left. At the same time a consolidation among the more or less similar platforms on the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist left needs to be strengthened through ongoing discussions, joint protests, Marxist political education, left publications and sectoral collaboration.

And then we will see where we will go from there.

[Zely Ariane is national spokesperson for the Political Committee of the Poor – People’s Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD), and a member of the national executive board of the Political Union of the Poor (PPRM). A longer version of this article is available on the KPRM-PRD English language website.]