Demonstrations start: a first tear in Indonesia’s thin fabric of stability?

Between March 24 and 30, a wave of quite militant demonstrations against the coalition government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spread throughout Indonesia. For the first time, some of the major trade union confederations joined the actions.

Scores were arrested and scores more hurt as police dispersed the demonstrators with tear gas and batons. At least three people were reported shot and wounded. Protesters replied with Molotov cocktails and, in some areas, the burning down of police stations. Unions also occupied the state radio station in Jakarta and got broadcasters to read their manifesto. Unions and activists successfully blockaded the Jakarta port for half a day.

The issue that provoked the demonstrations was the government’s proposal to increase fuel prices by 30%. The price increase will squeeze the millions of motorbike riders (the main form of transport in Indonesia now), result in public transport price increases and spur general inflation. Given the widespread poverty — the majority of the population survives on less than $2 per day — the Yudhoyono coalition’s decision is seen on the streets as one more sign of its lack of interest in improving the conditions of the mass of population.

The actions halted after the government retreated on the issue, finding a face-saving way to postpone the price increases. On March 30, the parliament met all day and one by one the parties in Yudhoyono’s coalition, including eventually his own Democrat Party, caved in. The fuel price rises have been postponed until the international oil price rises 15% above the price in the government’s budget assumptions, perhaps in six months.

Politicians fearful

All of the ruling parties were afraid that the demonstrations might escalate and threaten general stability. The Indonesian political system is in a fragile state.

Last November 30, a university student, Sondang Hutagalung, set himself alight in front of the Presidential Palace. He died seven days later in hospital, with burns to 97% of his body. He was protesting against the regime’s “dableg”-ness (complete lack of interest) in the conditions of the mass of the people. Self-immolation usually happens under dictatorships, not in systems where there are (more or less) free elections. Sondang was soon given the status of a national hero on the streets. The Sondang incident took place as more violent clashes occurred between farmers and plantations and miners. Several farmers were shot dead by police.

Politicians, even some from parties in the Yudhoyono coalition, also joined the demonstrations in some cities, including some holding senior positions in local government.

The political party that postures as an opposition in the Indonesian parliament, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, has been angling to win points from the public on the issue, but has exposed itself as very vacillating. In January Megawati announced that she supported the price rises. Then later some of its parliamentary leaders indicated they opposed the price rises and issued an instruction that their members support the demonstrations. Then Megawati signed an instruction banning PDIP members from joining the demonstration. On March 27, some PDIP members did mobilise, depending on the town. Some PDIP members of parliament, such as Rieke Diah Pitaloka, who has been a consistent supporter of some of the unions, and Ribka Tjiptaning and Maruarar Sirait supported the demonstrations.

Two small parties led by notorious Suharto-era generals, Prabowo and Wiranto, also opposed the fuel price rises, but ordered their members not to demonstrate. Suharto’s old party, Golkar, headed by tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, also in the end opposed the price rises.

Growth of middle class

Indonesian economic statistics show a steady growth in gross domestic product over the last eight to10 years, mainly based on exports of minerals (especially coal to China) and also of palm oil. The government’s revenues have almost doubled, as have its expenditures. The middle class has exploded in size, growing by a million people a year. One indicator is car sales. In 1998, car sales were only 58,000. In 2000, they were 260,000. In 2012, it is estimated, one million cars will be sold.

The growth in the middle class has become the measure of “development”. It has also become the basis of the political stability of the last 10 years: a middle class boom, combined with a grumbling passivity among the other 80-90% of the population.

Alienation from party system

This other 80% has become increasingly alienated from the national political party system. Voter participation in national elections has dropped from over 90% in 1999 to around 50% in more recent elections. Active party membership, especially in the pseudo-populist PDIP, has shrivelled. Where voters have shown some enthusiasm, it has been for candidates with no background in politics: TV celebrities, for example.

The one area where the formal processes are receiving some positive responses — at least for now — is in provincial and local politics, where a few local populist politicians, usually without a long record of party politics, have won popularity by reducing wasteful expenditure (travel, cars etc.) and redirecting some of the savings to the peddler marketing sector or to health or education.

The inertia of the Yudhoyono government is underpinned by its confidence that the new middle class is happy and that is the most important thing. Meanwhile, the discontent among the 80% deepens.

However, while these demonstrations are likely the first early signs of the end to their passivity, almost 100% of the demonstrations were by organised forces: unions, student groups, NGOs and action committees. There was virtually no spontaneous participation. The masses watched but did not involve themselves. The government retreated before that could happen. And as soon as the government retreated, the protest momentum halted almost totally.

There are likely to be a few more similar waves of protests before spontaneous mass participation occurs. And while no political leadership emerges, either in the form of authoritative organisations or figures, that spontaneous organisation may tend to take the form of rioting rather than a progressive political challenge.

Various coalitions of progressive political groups as well as sectoral-based organisations (such as trade unions and student groups) are currently planning to try to relaunch their campaigns before and on May Day.

Direct Action — April 21, 2012