Gap between elite and people widens as Indonesian elections approach

By Max Lane

Elections for the two houses of Indonesia’s national parliament and the provincial parliaments will take place on April 9, at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the parliamentary parties. These elections will be followed in July by what will likely be the first of two rounds to elect a president and vice-president.

Presidential candidates must be nominated by a party or parties with a combined minimum of 20% of the seats in the 550-member House of Representatives (DPR), making the DPR elections part of the process of electing the president. The DPR is the main legislative body, while the Regional Representatives Council (DPD) is a weaker body supposedly representing regional interests. Candidates for the DPR must stand as representatives of parties. Candidates for the DPD cannot be party representatives. The provincial parliaments are all party-based. Under a more decentralised budget system, these parliaments now have increased influence over local government finances.

Forty-four parties are registered for the April 9 elections, including six Acehnese parties that will participate only in that province. All the national parties support the general direction of current economic and political policies: they are either parties of the 1965-99 Suharto New Order period or what might be called “fake reformasi” parties. The latter rhetorically try to associate themselves with the reformasi democratisation movement of 1998 that forced the resignation of General Mohammed Suharto as Indonesia’s president. However, none of them have offered any resistance to the neoliberal economic policies introduced over the last five years by the government of President Yudhoyono.

On one occasion the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, staged a walkout against a foreign investment law, protesting some clauses it thought were too pro-foreigner, but it did not pursue opposition any further. Differences among the parties on economic questions have been minor. On social issues, the PDIP and Christian parties have opposed a law that attempts to impose dress and public behaviour codes for women derived from conservative Islamic traditions.

Domination of money

All 17 parties in the parliament united to impose onerous conditions for new parties to register — they must prove not only that they have branches and members in more than half the districts of more than half the provinces, but also that these branches have offices and other material facilities. Only parties with money (even if no real memberships) could register. This kept out parties with a grassroots base among the poor or activist organisations. It has ensured a monopoly for parties controlled by the Indonesian moneyed elite.

The larger parties also forced through provisions that a party must win 2.5% of the national vote to get seats in the parliament. This provision has been confirmed by the Constitutional Court following a legal challenge by several smaller parties. The threshold does not apply to the provincial parliaments.

Two activist-based grassroots-oriented parties attempted to secure registration but were unable to meet the onerous conditions. One was the People’s Union Party (PPR), built out of a large number of grassroots NGOs. The other was Papernas (National Liberation Party of Unity), which was built by the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), bringing together many grassroots activists who had worked with the PRD in the past and the PRD membership.

Following its failure to register, the PPR appears to be preparing for another attempt in 2014. The PRD-Papernas leadership opted to join one of the elite parties in the parliament, the Star Reformation Party (PBR). The PBR supported the election of Yudhoyono and the neoliberal policies introduced by the government. In order to silence internal opposition to its policy of joining the PBR, the PRD-Papernas leadership expelled a minority of its leadership, and then of its membership, who opposed this policy.

The electoral monopoly is the basis for a deepening alienation between the political elite and a growing section of the voters. A large percentage of the urban and rural poor see no party in which they have any faith. This is primarily manifested in abstention from voting, which has been steadily growing at the national elections (from 7% in 1999 to 30% in 2004) and especially in the local elections. Most recently the abstention — referred to in Indonesia as golput — reached almost 50% in East Java elections. Media discussion now reflects a deepening concern that the golput rate will be very high, undermining the new parliament’s and government’s legitimacy. Other voters may sell their vote as the parties dish out money, but this too reflects alienation.

The left

The majority of the activist left blocs have opted not to participate in the elections, although a considerable number of individual activists have been coopted into one or another of the elite parties. Three organised pro-socialist formations — the Political Committee of the Poor-PRD (KPRM-PRD, the minority expelled from the PRD-Papernas), the Working People’s Association (PRP) and the Indonesian Struggle Union (PPI) — have indicated that they think there is nobody worth voting for and no gains to be made for the popular struggle by supporting, even critically, any of the registered parties.

All three of these organisations emphasise the need to build strong extra-parliamentary coalitions through united campaign work. They point to the campaigns against the fuel price rises by the National Liberation Front (FPN) in May 2008 and against a government decree imposing wage rise limits by the Workers Challenge Alliance (ABM) in November 2008. None are opposed in principle to participating in parliamentary elections. The KPRM-PRD’s members were deeply involved in the original effort to register Papernas.

Most of the individual activists who have joined the elite parties defend their decision with the argument that they will be able to raise this or that “pro-people” issue in parliament if they are elected. Most do not present their decision as a tactic aimed at helping to build a radical left or socialist movement. The main grouping that presents its approach as such a tactic is the PRD-Papernas.

In an article in the Solo Pos newspaper in October, leading PRD-Papernas member Kelik Ismunanto wrote: “Parliament is the main edifice that needs to fortify the people against the ferocity of the free market.” This appears to suggest that parliament can be the true protector of the workers and peasants. The PRD-Papernas now sees the role of extra-parliamentary struggle as pressuring the parliament to act for the masses. This is a fundamental departure from the PRD’s original outlook, which saw mass action as the fundamental means of winning both concessions from the capitalist ruling class and bringing into being a government that could radically transform Indonesian economy to serve the needs of working class.

What makes the Papernas perspective even more indefensible is that it must know, as do the majority of the people, that Indonesia’s parliament is made up of pro capitalist neoliberal parties. This includes the Star Reformation Party (PBR), which the leadership of Papernas has now joined and which it is telling people is a “pro-people” party. Meanwhile, PBR chairperson Bursah Zarnubi has continued to collaborate with the Suharto-era ruling party, Golkar, organising for Golkar leaders to speak at PBR events. He has also stated in public that the PBR is open to supporting retired General Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s son-in-law, as a presidential candidate.

Prabowo is considered by many to be responsible for the disappearances and kidnappings of pro-democracy activists under Suharto in 1997. He heads a new party called the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), one of whose leaders is retired General Muchdi Purwopranjono, the former deputy head of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN). Muchdi was cleared last December of charges that he ordered the murder of prominent human rights activist Munir Said Thalib in 2006. His acquittal, after a trial marked by intimidation of prosecution witnesses, sparked outrage among local and international human rights groups. An appeal against the acquittal decision has been filed with the Supreme Court by the attorney-general.

Papernas has developed a new analysis of Indonesian politics to justify its joining the PBR, arguing that there is a split between foreign and national capital over control of natural resources and neoliberal policies in general. Ignoring the fact that all the parties in the parliament, including the PBR, have supported neoliberal legislation, the Papernas leadership points instead to the nationalist rhetoric of some elite politicians. Among those using such rhetoric is Prabowo, who now regularly attacks “foreign domination” of Indonesia’s national resources.

The PBR has indicated it may offer support to another such politician, Rizal Ramli, the presidential candidate of a new party called the Employers and Workers Party, whose symbol is two hands clasped in unity. The Papernas leadership argues that Indonesian employers and workers now share fundamentally the same interests. The trade union group affiliated to Papernas used May Day 2008 to hold a public meeting seeking to identify points of collaboration and “synergies” between workers and “national entrepreneurs” in opposing the “globalisation current”.

Other Papernas members, including Ismunanto himself, have now become active in Merti Nusantara, a grouping campaigning to elect the sultan of Yogyakarta (who still claims to be a Golkar cadre) as president. Others are helping Rizal Ramli’s efforts and still others have ended up as candidates for other elite parties.

[Max Lane is a visiting fellow in the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore, and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]