Still an Age of Activism

BY EDWARD ASPINALL
Feb 07, 2012

Indonesia: Left-wing politics are fragmented, but left-wing ideas are surprisingly influential.

1209 A tradition of mass action is one of the inheritances from pre-1965 Indonesia. PHOTO: Henri Ismail/Poros PhotoIn Indonesia, it sometimes seems that the left is everywhere yet nowhere. Though one rarely hears the word socialism these days (it was sometimes used even by officials during the Suharto period), words that in other countries connote radical or leftist agendas are in Indonesia part of everyday political discourse such as ‘struggle’ (perjuangan), ‘the people’ (rakyat) and so on. And a radically anti-establishment discourse, usually expressed as condemnation of the elite and its ‘games’ (permainan), corruption and ‘manipulation’ (rekayasa), is common currency among a large sector of Indonesia’s activists and wider public opinion.

Yet the organised left is very weak. When the PRD (People’s Democratic Party) – the nearest modern Indonesia has come to having a radical mass-based left-wing political party – contested the national election in 1999, it won less than 0.1 per cent of the vote. Since that time the party has splintered, with many of its former activists abandoning it either to join mainstream parties or to found small activist groups of their own.

However, a broad left is visible in the domain of civil society. There is a tremendous profusion of people’s organisations, trade unions and farmer groups and a multiplicity of small – sometimes tiny – organisations that campaign for the rights of this or that marginalised group in society, sometimes using dramatically confrontational tactics in pursuing their goals. But this diffuse movement lacks an organisational centre. There can be a lot of agreement on particular issues and campaigns, but there is little long-term coordination or agenda-setting.

Identifying the left

So how do we go about identifying the Indonesian left today? One problem is, if we think of the left very loosely as those groups who seek (to borrow from Wikipedia) ‘social justice through redistributive social and economic intervention by the state’, that at least two parts of this formula – social justice and state intervention – are widely shared, at least superficially, by many actors from across Indonesia’s political spectrum.

The mainstream parties that occupy seats in the national parliament claim to care about people’s empowerment, defending the poor and achieving welfare outcomes in ways that in developed countries would usually be associated with the left. The PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle) led by Megawati Soekarnoputri, in particular, has inherited much of the populist tradition of Megawati’s father, Sukarno, and defines itself as the party of the ‘little people’. The major Islamic political parties, even those that pursue conservative social agendas, are generally also in favour of small-scale projects to assist poor farmers and communities, and often promote economic nationalist policies.

But these parties lack the third element of the definition: commitment to redistribution. They are still determinedly developmentalist, seeing their main role as growing the national economic pie in order to give everybody a greater share. In mainstream politics, it remains rare to find people who believe in a conflict of interest between poor and rich. All the major parties say they are both pro-business and pro-poor. And most of them are funded by, and in many ways serve the interests of, the oligarchs who reign supreme in Indonesia.

A problem here derives from one of the fundamental ordering principles of Indonesian politics: Indonesia has become a patronage society in which the glue that holds political networks together is the flow of resources from political leaders (patrons) to their followers (clients). These resources come in many forms – sometimes in suitcases full of cash (as some of the more spectacular corruption investigations of recent years have indicated), but more commonly in the form of development projects, construction contracts, emergency assistance packages, technical support packages and the myriad of other small-scale projects that are provided by the state to be divvied up and distributed at the grassroots of society.

Many mainstream political groups in Indonesia, including the major parties, espouse leftist-sounding rhetoric about empowering the poor from time to time because it provides cover for what they are really interested in: distributing benefits to their own constituents and supporters. Thus, for example, traditionalist Islamic politicians in political parties like PKB (National Awakening Party) and PPP (Unity Development Party) ensure that funds and projects make their way to the traditional Islamic schools that form part of their support base. In the provinces and districts, local government heads and parliamentarians distribute funds and projects to their own supporters, who pass them on through pyramids of political allies, brokers and operators. Most of this happens in the name of helping the poor, and some of the resources do end up in valuable development and poverty alleviation packages, even if a lot of it is skimmed off.

As a result, the boundaries between left and right are frequently blurred in Indonesia. Sometimes there are surprising alliances between left-wing activists and mainstream political forces. And although left-wing groups generally include the fight against corruption in their political programs, they can also be drawn into the web of patronage.

Legacies of the left

But there are other reasons why it is hard to identify the left. When people think about its history, they usually begin by looking back to the communist movement and its destruction in the mid-1960s. The PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) was a major force both in the anti-colonial struggle in the first half of the twentieth century, and in the struggle to steer a course for the new Indonesian republic in the first twenty years of independence. As is well known, by the early 1960s Indonesia had the third largest communist party in the world (after China and the Soviet Union), and left-wing modes of thought and organisation were influential far beyond the PKI and its affiliated organisations.

This radical history was ended abruptly in 1965-66 when the military and its allies engineered one of the greatest political massacres of the twentieth century. Nobody knows the exact figure, but about half a million communists and alleged communists were killed. The PKI and its affiliates were banned, many of the survivors were imprisoned, their descendants persecuted and independent organisation of workers, peasants and other marginalised groups effectively proscribed.