Indonesia's crisis of leadership

On September 20, the State Electricity Company Trade Union of Indonesia issued a call for support for a campaign against the privatisation of the state-owned company, and against the liberalisation of the electricity market in general.

Under a “letter of intent” sent to the International Monetary Fund in October 1997 — at the time of the Asian financial crisis — the government undertook to privatise through first breaking up the company, either vertically or horizontally, then allowing it to be sold off. Fourteen years later, the government appears to be moving more persistently in this direction, with plans to hive off parts of the state company to regional governments or to make them subsidiary companies. The union is quoting experts predicting possible eventual price increases of 500 to 1500%.

In its September 20 statement, it announced it would carry out a national strike of all employees, both office workers ands technicians in the electricity generation plants, immediately the government takes any firm steps.

The union has a record, over the last few years, of mobilising against the moves towards privatisation, as well as participating in demonstrations organised by broader coalitions. It is now reported that management has moved to expel union officials from their offices within a company complex.

Strikes and demonstrations

In December 2010, almost 100,000 women workers from north Jakarta factories — garments, footwear, electronics — mobilised in a series of demonstrations within their industrial estate zones against low wages and violations of union rights. Workers from the first factories that went on strike swept through the zone urging others to come out, swelling the demonstration. They were demanding that the provincial government increase the minimum wage to Rp1,401,829 (Approx A$160) per month, up from Rp1,118,000. Smaller actions have continued since then.

Thousands demonstrated in early October demanding that the parliament pass a bill to set up a state authority to provide social insurance, which is either non-existent in Indonesia or the source of non-stop corruption scandals.

Strikes and mobilisations by factory workers over wages and conditions, and against the legalisation of outsourcing and casual labour, by farmers demanding the return of seized land or compensation, by impoverished salt farmers protesting the cheap entry of foreign salt and demonstrations demanding medical insurance all continue. The list grows daily of the grievances resulting from the “neoliberal” policies of the Yudhoyono government, supported in general by the whole parliament. However, there are no signs yet of the kind of escalation of mobilisation nor of the focusing on specific generalised demands that, for example, emerged in the 1990s in the lead-up to the 1998 confrontations between the mass movement and the dictator Suharto.

There have been attempts to channel things in this direction. In 2008, critics of the Yudhoyono government launched the Cabut Mandate (Withdraw the Mandate) movement. While the first demonstrations had several thousand people and generated significant media discussion, the initiative did not snowball. More recently, this year, a coalition of anti-government figures called the Petisi 28, comprising many activists from the 1990s, will hold another annual demonstration against Yudhoyono on October 20. But the Petisi 28 attempts to generate an anti-Yudhoyono movement have also not generated momentum, despite all the polls indicating falling popularity for Yudhoyono, especially ad hoc polls on the street.

Oppositions weak

Another reflection of the inability of opposition movements to develop a momentum is the fact that no opposition leadership has emerged — neither real nor illusory nor symbolic. This is also different from the 1990s, when, eight years before Suharto’s downfall, there were developing both symbolic and activist leaderships with a growing profile. Megawati Sukarnoputri, elected by the Indonesian Democratic Party as its chairperson, against the wishes of Suharto, emerged as a symbol of opposition as she fought off Suharto’s moves to depose and sideline her. At the grassroots level, the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) and its leaders such as Budiman Sujatmiko, as well as other figures such as union activist Mucktar Pakpahan, emerged as activist leaders who had an increasing profile. Now neither the Indonesian elite nor the activist-based movement has produced any figures or organisations capable of winning such profiles.

In the case of the elite, this is not surprising, especially at the national level. All of the existing political parties trace their origins one way or another back to the parties that existed under Suharto. None have developed policy platforms that challenge any major aspect of the economic and political strategies that were pursued since the fall of Suharto. The economic strategy is the same strategy that Suharto was pursuing from the late 1980s: a liberalisation of the economy through privatisation, liberalisation and austerity. It is, however, possible to identify a potential source of new leadership from within the elite, the Indonesian capitalist class.

Districts and towns

Since 2002, there has been a substantial delegation of budgetary powers to district administrations. During the same period, laws were passed introducing direct elections for district heads, as well as for governors of provinces, one administrative level higher. Within a context of heightened electoral competition, some local elite figures trying to win or hold positions as district heads or mayors of towns have promised, and then indeed implemented, policies of more-or-less free education or health services. Some of these figures have been re-elected with absolute majorities, an unusual event in Indonesia. So far they have paid for these policies by re-allocating money in the budgets they receive from the national government under the new decentralisation laws.

These figures are usually drawn from the local elite, although they are usually people who do not have a substantial connection with the ruling party during the Suharto period. There are reports that they are also able to use these positions to extend their own or their family’s or friends’ business operations.

The Indonesian electoral system requires candidates to be nominated by registered political parties, but there does not seem to be any pattern behind which coalitions of parties nominate these candidates. While some of these local figures are very popular, there are, as yet, no signs of anybody trying to launch themselves nationally. At the same time, there are signs that associations of these local officials are emerging and operating as a significant lobby group vis-a-vis the national government. It appears very much like an emerging tension or rivalry between aspiring local capitalists and the big conglomerate families that dominate the political parties nationally.

Lack of solutions

There is a vacuum not only in terms of an oppositional leadership, but even in terms of a leadership representing the ruling coalition, or any other combination of the parties that have substantial representation in the parliament. Yudhoyono cannot stand again, and given his falling popularity, would be a strong candidate again only in the light of the absence of anybody else. Some of the major conglomerate figures — millionaire bosses Aburizal Bakrie and Suryo Palo, both in Suharto’s old Golkar party — have been positioning themselves, but neither has generated any momentum. Former general Prabowo, also from a millionaire business family, has tried to project himself as a populist nationalist figure but has not generated any momentum either. Megawati Sukarnoputri is still there, but equally uninspiring. The field appears vacant at all levels so far.

In some ways, this is unsurprising in a more fundamental way. To generate momentum as a leader at the moment, any figure would have to come up with solutions to the myriad of grievances produced by their own neoliberal policies. The stench of corruption that envelopes the whole of the elite has also eroded any claim to legitimacy. In any case, none have come up with any concrete (or even fake) proposals that could generate popularity, even temporarily. Unless some new elite figure emerges — for example, a governor or district head somewhere on Sumatra or Java — there will be a serious crisis of leadership for the Indonesian political and business elite over the next few years.

At the grassroots, the radically oriented, even leftish, groups, networks, publications and discussion circles have multiplied. Unions are more active, and while experiencing ups and downs, protests and demonstrations remain common and widespread. But there are no signs yet of an emerging national leadership or even competing national leaderships. (Part 2 of a series. To be continued.) 


Jakarta: demonstration in early October to demand the parliament pass a bill to set up a state authority to provide social insurance.