Indonesia's democratic struggle and the fight for socialism


It was not just for the sake of democracy that the Indonesian people overthrew Suharto’s New Order dictatorship in May 1998, but also for justice and prosperity. It was not for reformasi (the political reform process that began in 1998) that students and the people occupied the House of Representatives, but for an Indonesia free from the threat of the gun and military spies, free from corruption and nepotism, for a prosperity in which basic commodities would be affordable. Democracy was the means to achieve human liberation from oppression. Without democracy, humanity becomes colourless and prosperity becomes a commodity owned by those in power.

Mass action

The reform movement brought down a dictator, broadening the people’s direct political participation through a multi-party system, press freedom and the freedom to organise and most importantly, restored the most effective political weapon of the people, mass action. However, the movement was unable to bring down Suharto’s capitalist and militaristic regime and replace it with one that was more democratic and popular. The movement also failed to consolidate fully and push through a more progressive democracy. The movement failed in the fight against the military and Suharto’s Golkar party, and failed to fight the hegemony of the anti-democratic forces.

Democracy has now been restricted and channelled into institutions unilaterally declared as the representative will of the people, complicated by bureaucracy and the manipulation of money, locked into the interests of capital and the status quo, and controlled by the gun and the threat of jail. Democracy is no longer the will of the people, but the will of a small elite defending their interests and power.

When mass action changed the rules, when democracy was in the hands of the ordinary people, when it was decided directly by the people, not one legal mechanism in capitalist society could say no.

Of all the elements of democracy won by reformasi, such as freedom of expression, assembly, the right to form political parties, freedom of information, direct elections that were honest and fair, the principal and fundamental element was mass action. Spontaneous and organised mass actions were the key to political change in 1998. Indonesian politics observer Max Lane says in his book Unfinished Nation that the Suharto dictatorship was overthrown politically from the moment that mobilisations began, when mass action again began to be used as a weapon against the New Order’s “floating mass” politics in the mid-1990s.

People have speculated that Suharto’s downfall was the result of intervention by the United States, which no longer saw him as an effective and efficient agent for international capitalism. While this conspiracy theory may be correct, without the mass upheaval that began in the mid-1990s, the US would not have considered Suharto ineffective. Mass action remains the principal factor of change, regardless of who or what hitched a ride on this change in the days that followed.

Historically, mass action has been critical because it played a key role in winning independence from the Dutch and in Indonesian politics generally until Suharto and the military seized power in 1965. This political characteristic was destroyed, right down to its roots, by the New Order through the arrest and murder of activists and the propaganda against any perspective that supported mass action. Mass action became the ghost haunting the New Order and was transformed into an angel during the initial period of reformasi.

New organisations grew, while old organisations split and were forced to reorganise. Most striking were the growth and splits in the trade unions and political parties. Numerous committees and student groups were established and grew rapidly. All took up the jargon of reformasi, even the old status quo organisations.

But freedom of information, direct elections, the multi-party system, regional autonomy, all of which were the results of reformasi, are now being turned into a scapegoat by the status quo forces, as if they are the source of the country’s problems.

It is not the fault of reformasi if democracy is deteriorating. Nor does it mean that Suharto’s New Order was better because the “Reformasi Order” appears more vulgar. Reformasi changed the rules, creating space for a more advanced and essential democracy. It also provided a foundation for fundamental changes to the principles of the institutional state. But this foundation has no meaning if there are no democratic or progressive political forces to utilise or cultivate it. Reformasi also has limits in itself. It changed the surface, not what was deep inside. Reformasi has been unable to reform a system deeply rooted in oppression. It was unable to make capitalism and militarism serve humanity.


Bit by bit, many of the most important achievements of the democratic struggle are being taken away. The people are still able to demonstrate, but the constraints on this are being progressively tightened. Large protests are now allowed only opposite the State Palace. New restrictions on establishing organisations and political parties and the muzzling of trade unions are some of the most painful examples.

Just recently, activists were shocked by an Indo Barometer survey that found 40.9% of respondents believed that conditions under Suharto’s regime were better than now. The political discourse about reformasi is being dominated by right-wing, status quo and conservative elements. They argue that democracy has gone too far, is inefficient and wasteful. Progressive social groups have concluded that reformasi has failed to deliver prosperity for ordinary people and that their lives are becoming steadily worse.

For the progressive groups, or those that claim to be revolutionaries, reformasi has failed in three principal ways. First, although the military has been banished from parliament, its territorial command structure – which mandates military command posts and detachments at all levels of the civil administration – remains intact and has even been extended. Second, reformasi failed to bring Suharto and the generals who committed gross human rights violations to justice. Third, reformasi failed to weaken the power of the political parties that were the principal crutch of the New Order – Golkar and Suharto’s cronies. These three elements are a measure of the failures of the democratic struggle.

It is untrue that things were better under Suharto. The New Order was in fact the historical cause of the systematic poverty that Indonesia suffers now, by first and foremost slaughtering or imprisoning millions of innocent people because they were obstacles to the New Order’s capitalist economic development. These big Indonesian capitalists then pawned the people and their natural wealth into the hands of international capital through the 1967 law on capital investment.

From that time, Indonesia became increasingly fertile ground for foreign exploitation: cheap labour, natural wealth sold off and the environment destroyed without thought of the future, the people entangled in foreign debt, industries operating only to serve international markets and prevented from pursuing planned development to meet the needs of the people. Indonesia’s once dynamic culture became static, with diversity manifested only though traditional arts and regional dress, not through a diversity of thought, expression and political action. The people were no longer permitted to be involved in politics and simply laboured for Suharto and his cronies under the barrel of the military’s guns.

There is a view that under the New Order the prices of basic commodities were cheaper. The average wage at that time was still enough to cover the cost of staples. This was not because the New Order sided with the people, but because the global capitalist economy still “tolerated” government subsidies to the people, which it no longer consents to. Wages today are less and less able to cover staples because prices are increasing (due to inflation and subsidy cuts) faster than wages.

‘Too much’ democracy?

The other view expressed by status quo forces is that Indonesian democracy has gone too far. Former vice president and business tycoon Jusuf Kalla has said that democracy is too expensive because there are too many direct elections and too many political parties. Worse still is the view of intelligence analyst Wawan Purwanto: “The slow pace of dealing with terrorism in Indonesia is mostly caused by the emergence of reformasi ... Before we still had the anti-subversion law and it was easy to deal with things ...”

Such views – which have many adherents, particularly within the bureaucracy – make no sense. Kalla fails to see the importance of people’s participation and the political dynamics of direct elections and the establishment of parties. The 1955 elections under the leftist government of Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, involved many parties.

Political life was very dynamic, and diverse political views existed openly and clearly, providing a positive political education to the people.

Hersri Setiawan, a poet and activist from the People’s Cultural Institute (Lekra), a now banned organisation formerly affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party, commented that reformasi was a massive wave that brought down the Suharto-military regime but did not follow through and overthrow militarism. New military territorial commands, military intervention in land conflicts and the shooting of farmers, the involvement of high-ranking military officers in the formation of many political parties, the talk about political leaders with a military background being better than civilians and a narrow discussion of nationalism in the debate about territorial borders, all reflect militaristic behaviour and thinking.

Reformasi will indeed be unable to solve this fully without a progressive social movement that is alive and real, continuing to force through its demands. Unfortunately, the progressive social movement has failed to present an alternative ideology to capitalism, bureaucratism and militarism, against conservatism and fundamentalism. This is the principal failure of reformasi. The movement was also unable to take advantage of the opportunities and potential to change the political rules in the initial phases. Perhaps this was because the movement was immature in theory, strategy and tactics.

Capitalist consolidation

The bourgeois forces were far quicker to consolidate after 1998. The impeachment of President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid in 2001 was the first milestone in the alliance between the bourgeois supporters of reformasi and the remnants of the New Order. The fake reformists – the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the National Mandate Party were the most conspicuous – lacked any principles and were quick to betray reformasi and support the New Order remnants. At this point the bourgeois counterattack against reformasi began in earnest.

A massive economic consolidation was undertaken during the administration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairperson of the PDI-P. International capitalism after Suharto was pushing the dismantling of state protection of domestic markets. All of the people’s basic needs had to be commercialised. The Megawati administration played the biggest role in pushing Indonesia further into dependency on imperialism through the privatisation of state companies, signing agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that further ensnared Indonesia in the traps of international finance capital. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has pursued similar policies, but relying more on foreign debt to open the tap of liberalism.

Since the 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections in which Yudhoyono won the presidency, there has been almost no difference between the pro-reformasi forces and the New Order remnants, particularly after student activists from the 1998 movement rushed to become candidates for the fake reformist and New Order parties. The 2009 elections brought a continuation of this consolidation and a funnelling of bourgeois forces into a few major parties.

More recently, the bourgeoisie’s political consolidation has been furthered by the emergence of the National Democrats and the National Republican Party, both of which smack of attempts to restore the New Order. The forces behind these new parties are still Golkar (or disaffected former members) and the military. The National Republican Party, led by Suharto’s son Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra, calls openly for a return to the “good old days” under Suharto.

New threats

A huge threat to the democratic struggle is posed by draft laws on intelligence and secrecy, state security and revisions to the criminal code that are expected to be ratified in July. Wawan Purwanto thinks that the aim is to revive some kind of anti-subversion law in order to legitimise the arrest of people who oppose or criticise the government. Increasing terrorism and the Indonesian Islamic State movement are being used to create an atmosphere of fear while simultaneously increasing repression and the monitoring of social and political activities.

The Draft Intelligence Law Advocacy Coalition says that the laws are a threat to freedom of expression and organisation, particularly in the articles related to intelligence information secrecy, arbitrary arrests and the complete lack of any control. One of the articles of the draft revisions to the criminal code prescribes jail sentences for anyone who “spreads or develops Communist/Marxist-Leninist teachings in any … form” and anyone who is “reasonably suspected of practising Communism/Marxism-Leninism”.

The other threat is the growth of conservative and fundamentalist organisations and actions. While reformasi opened opportunities for democratic consolidation, it has been conservative ideas that have come to the fore, while progressive and socialist ideas have failed to gain a hearing.

For one step forward

Since no elite force has any real belief in democracy, the solution still lies on the shoulders of the progressive social movements. They have no choice but to unite against these attacks on democracy while continuing the struggle for economic justice. Reformasi itself is no longer enough. Even the smallest gains in the struggle for reformasi require mobilisation of the people and require revolutionary politics aiming at a radical new system of power, economy and society.

Consolidation of the progressive social movements and the left is making few advances. The movements for economic rights are often fragmented and difficult to unite with a political and democratic struggle. Yet economic rights cannot be achieved without democracy. The lack of an alternative political vehicle complicates this unity process.

Politics is characterised by conflict, decisions, power and situations that cannot be predicted mathematically, all of which determine the best tactics in the struggle for socialism. Therefore socialists must play the fullest possible role in the democratic struggle.

The solution must be formulated jointly because the problem has to be overcome jointly. In the words of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, “We must build the unity, consciousness and maturity of the movement, make it into a force that is strong and cohesive, and then with patience, with thorough attention to the contextual conditions, await an opportune moment to use this force”.

Such forces, Gramsci continued, need to “make themselves one in relating to the conditions on the ground, not just converging momentarily ... they must demonstrate, both in the imagination of the people as well as in action, that they are capable of winning power and implementing the tasks that they have set themselves.”

We have arrived at the question of why we are so concerned with democracy, and why we cannot hope or expect democratic reform from capitalism.

Democracy and capitalism never run in parallel, because capitalism does not want the most basic ingredient of democracy, the direct participation of the majority. In The State and Revolution, Lenin wrote: “Within capitalist society we have a democracy that is emasculated, forlorn, false, a democracy for the rich, who are in the minority”.

Democracy under capitalism is democracy for the capitalists, whose economic position is free from popular control. The people are given representative institutions without any direct involvement or understanding. This has one aim: distancing the people from politics. This kind of democracy inevitably makes society apathetic and passive.

When the capitalist state is confronted with radical demands for democracy and welfare, it shows no reluctance in responding with violence and repression. At moments like that, the real character of capitalist democracy is exposed.

People must have power

The struggle for socialism is a struggle to overturn the logic of capitalist democracy. Socialism needs the broadest possible political involvement, because it is the people who must hold power. The most fundamental elements in the struggle for democracy are the people’s sovereignty, human rights, constitutional authority, citizenship, oversight by the people. While many of these ideals were born in the bourgeois-democratic revolutions, capitalist development came to threaten them, so it is the working people who have the greatest interest in defending and broadening democracy; that is the meaning of completing the democratic revolution.

The struggle for socialism requires an extension of democratic logic to broader arenas such as fighting state bureaucracy. It politicises and democratises all areas of people’s lives.

Socialism can be realised only with democracy. It requires the direct contribution of ideas and action by the people as a whole to find solutions to problems in their lives. The more people are involved, the richer and more successful socialism will be. This is why socialists must intervene in the political struggle, because every step forward or backward will influence the possibility of a socialist victory.

[Zely Ariane is a member of the People’s Democratic Party-Political Committee of the Poor (KPRM-PRD) and an activist with Free Women (Perempuan Mahardhika). Abridged from the translation by James Balowski.]

Pro-democracy protester attacks police line in Jakarta - May 21, 1998
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