Still an Age of Activism

BY EDWARD ASPINALL
Feb 07, 2012

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

Likewise, there was a dramatic increase of peasant activism after the fall of Suharto, with the formation of new mass-based peasant unions in many parts of the country, especially in land dispute hot spots such as North Sumatra, Bengkulu and West Java (see the article by Dianto Bachriadi in this edition). However, most of these, too, have suffered debilitating splits and many of their leaders have left to make careers for themselves in mainstream politics at the local level.

There are many reasons for the fragmentation. One of the most important is the much more complex political terrain that radical activists need to negotiate in a liberal democracy. As one former PRD member, Anom Astika, explains, unity was easier to achieve under Suharto when there was only one enemy: ‘now there are many enemies’. In this, Indonesia is not unique: radical movements often thrive best under right-wing dictatorships and fracture once the dictatorship collapses. Another problem is that patronage society has penetrated into the left and its base. Another former PRD member, Web Warouw, suggests that even ordinary people now want to get material benefits from political participation: ‘Demonstration participants now expect 50-100 thousand rupiah each … It’s all project-oriented.’

This reference to the ‘project’ orientation points to yet another factor: the continuing influence of the NGO model on left-wing politics and, more broadly, of the pull of money and material comfort. Many activists, especially as they age, want to have the same lifestyles that their friends, former class mates and relatives are enjoying as part of Indonesia’s increasingly robust middle class. To do so, they don’t necessarily have to abandon political life. People can become relatively comfortable by being involved in a successful NGO, and securing project funding. They can become wealthy by engaging directly in the world of mainstream electoral politics.

Joining the mainstream

In fact, the problem for the left might be not that it has too many enemies, but too many friends. Over the last decade, mainstream political parties and patrons have recruited many former radical activists. Again, just keeping the focus on the PRD, Budiman Sudjatmiko, who was the head of the organisation when it was first founded (and who was jailed as a result), joined the PDI-P, eventually becoming a member of parliament. He brought several dozen former PRD members and other activists with him and formed a mass organisation affiliated to the PDI-P called Repdem (Struggle Volunteers for Democracy).

Andi Arief, formerly the head of Indonesian Student Solidarity for Democracy (SMID) (PRD’s old student affiliate) has moved into President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s inner circle, becoming first a commissioner for the postal service and then a special adviser to the president in the areas of social assistance and natural disasters. The former head of PRD’s labour affiliate, and another former leader of the party, Dita Indah Sari, has become a spokesperson and expert staff for the Minister of Manpower and Transmigration. Gerindra has also recruited a large number of former PRD activists.

Overall, this phenomenon reflects a familiar pattern. Indonesia is not the only country where young militant activists become more conservative as they get older. Nor does this process mean that they all abandon their previous commitments, or that they do not use their new positions of influence to achieve reforms from within the system. As Dita Sari puts it: ‘In the past the furthest we got was the fence out there [she says while pointing outside the ministry building], but the real battle is here, inside the bureaucracy.’ She points to new policies she has helped to initiate, such as better social welfare insurance for public transport workers and migrant labourers.

Nor have all those who have joined the mainstream necessarily been personally corrupted by patronage politics, although all of them must encounter corruption in their daily political lives. As one former PRD member who had joined a ministry explained: ‘My struggle here is to be clean in a dirty place. In the PRD, we were surrounded by people who were also clean, and we didn’t have money, so it was not hard. Here just remaining clean is a struggle.’

But, despite these qualifications, it is hard to avoid concluding that the pathway these activists have taken reflects, above all, the failures of radical, mass-based politics in post-Suharto Indonesia. In mid-twentieth century European and other developed countries, it was traditional for Marxists to attempt to penetrate social-democratic labour parties in order to gain access to their working class base. There was conscious strategy behind such moves. What is striking about what’s happened in Indonesia is how activists’ entry into political parties has mimicked the broader pattern of fragmentation visible on the left. Activists have joined not only PDI-P, PBR and Gerindra, but also PKB (the National Awakening Party), PAN (National Mandate Party), Partai Demokrat and even Golkar, the party of the former Suharto regime. This fact alone makes their entry into the mainstream look more like a counsel of despair rather than concerted strategy.

The health of democracy

But for all this, some of the classic issues that have defined left-wing politics over the last 100 years have made their way into the political agenda of government. The irony is that they have done so largely without pressure from an organised left.

Take the issue of access to healthcare for the poor, a classic concern of the left in all countries. Over the last five years or so, access to quality healthcare has become a crucial political issue in Indonesia. Nowadays, in virtually every local government election, candidates who want to have a chance of winning have to promise free healthcare. Local governments have introduced a large variety of schemes. The JKA (Aceh Health Guarantee) scheme introduced by Aceh’s governor, Irwandi Yusuf, provides free, universal coverage to all residents of Aceh and flies critical patients who need surgery or care of a type that is not provided in Aceh’s public hospitals to Jakarta at public expense. Similar but slightly less ambitious schemes are in place in at least five other provinces. Numerous districts and cities around the country are also experimenting with better public health coverage.

1211 Workers of Indonesia unite! PHOTO: Henri Ismail/Poros PhotoThere is much variety in these local schemes in terms of the universality of their coverage, the quality and extent of services they provide, and in whether they are funded by government or by compulsory insurance premiums. In many places, too, local governments struggle to cover the costs of these schemes, and the quality of care they provide is often very poor. Even so, there is no doubt that the issue of healthcare has moved to the centre of political life.