Still an Age of Activism

BY EDWARD ASPINALL
Feb 07, 2012

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

The legacy of this period was clearly massively destructive to Indonesia’s radical tradition. But many of the modes of thought and action that had been associated with the pre-1965 left – notably, commitment to the interests of the ‘little people’, hostility to the ‘elite’, and the high value placed on mass action as a form of political engagement – lived on, in sublimated form, during the New Order. When that regime fell, populist ideas and mass mobilisation regained a place at the centre of Indonesian political life. However, the old organisational tradition of the left was broken and the discipline and intellectual rigour that had been associated with it was all but lost.

Even so, as time passed, there was increasing opposition to the New Order regime, much of it which focused on the plight of the poor and the empowerment of marginalised groups. But because repression made frontal or underground opposition very risky, most of this opposition took a gradualist, non-confrontational, even apolitical form. Most critics of the regime formed NGOs rather than overtly political organisations. They focused on this or that sector – helping a particular community that was threatened with eviction, focusing on empowerment of a particular poor urban community, organising theatre workshops in a working class neighbourhood and the like – and clothed much of their activity in the developmentalist language favoured by the regime.

By the 1990s, more and more foreign donor organisations were willing to fund NGOs working on environmental, human rights and similar issues. Such funding increased almost exponentially in the post-Suharto period. The result is that there is a large and diverse NGO movement in Indonesia, but one that it is intrinsically fractured. Different NGOs develop specialised expertise in different segments of Indonesian social and political life rather than focusing on broad agendas and alliance building. Most are organisations of professionals and intellectuals with no desire to build a mass base. They also compete with one another for donor funding. The dominance of this NGO model continues to be a chief source of the fragmentation and splintering that characterises Indonesia’s broad left today.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were also attempts to revive and recreate a self-consciously militant leftist political agenda that went beyond the NGO model. Some student activists formed study groups and rediscovered classical Marxism, and read other radical works. There were also early attempts to revive independent peasant and labour organising. By the mid-1990s some of these efforts had crystallised in the formation of the PRD, a student-based group. The PRD tried to reinvent a tradition of militant class-based organisation and direct confrontation with the regime. It was small, but it played an important catalytic role in sharpening the tenor of the anti-Suharto struggle, and it was persecuted by the military as a result.

Fragmentation and co-optation

When the mass mobilisations that brought down Suharto came virtually out of the blue in 1998, no single organisation or alliance was in a position to dominate or unite the broad left. Fragmentation was the order of the day and it has remained so to the present.

The PRD is a case in point. When Indonesia entered its democratic phase in 1998, this was by no means the only leftist group in the broad opposition to Suharto, but it emerged with a certain cachet due to the special place it had in late New Order demonology. Since that time, however, the PRD has experienced a series of debilitating splits and reorganisations.

One early split came in 2000 when a group of the PRD’s central leaders formed the PDS (Democratic Socialist Association), accusing the PRD of being sectarian and undemocratic. Later, when a front party for the PRD called Papernas (National Liberation Party of Unity) was facing difficulties meeting the registration requirements for the 2009 elections, PRD leaders made an unlikely alliance with PBR (Star Reform Party), an Islamic party. About 100 PRD activists stood as PBR candidates but none were elected. Other PRD and Papernas activists denounced this alliance as an opportunistic marriage of convenience with a right-wing party, leading to the formation of KPRM-PRD (Political Committee of the Poor People – People’s Democratic Party), which is now known as PPR (People’s Liberation Party).

Another key group on the left is the PRP (Working People’s Association) which has a separate history from the PRD, though it has also attracted some former members of the older organisation. But PRP has also split, leading to the formation of KPO-PRP (Committee to Save the Organisation – PRP). This split – like many on the far left – occurred over matters of internal organisation and democracy.

1210 On the fringes, left-wing ideas are strong PHOTO: Henri Ismail/PorosThere are several other groups on the far left, forming part of a bewildering kaleidoscope. Among them, a group still using the PRD name also survives. Many of its members are now inside other parties, especially PDI-P and Gerindra, the party formed by the Suharto’s disgraced son-in-law and former general, Prabowo Subianto. According to Max Lane, a long-time observer of the Indonesian left, ‘The activist millieu on the far left is much bigger than in the 1990s or during the 2000-2007 period. PPR, PRP, KPO-PRP, Pusat Perjuangan Indonesia, Jaringan Militan, the Praxis network, local groups, independent left unions and other smaller local groups run by people learning Marxism from the internet or from earlier activists all total up to a much larger number than ever before, and then you can add left publishers, leftish student groups and so on.’

The splintering and fragmentation on the far left is mirrored in all segments of left wing politics. For example, there has been an explosion of labour activism since 1998, with the formation of literally thousands of new unions. But many of them are tiny, being based in particular firms or localities. Attempts to coordinate union activity on a national level have made great strides, but still face many obstacles. There are three – or four, depending how you count them – major rival national federations in operation, but only a small proportion of all unions in the country are affiliated to them and they are divorced from their affiliate unions and lack resources. Left-wing unions have, on the whole, been relegated to the margins.