Still an Age of Activism

Feb 07, 2012

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

Another example is the social security law passed in late 2011, following a 2004 law that established the framework for a national social security system. The laws promise a system of universal social insurance for healthcare and other benefits such as pensions and workplace accident insurance, to be funded by employer and employee contributions, as a set proportion of wages, for workers in the formal sector. Informal sector workers will also be covered, but they will have to make payments into the scheme. Government contributions will cover the poor, though the precise rates will be set by government regulations.

The national social security scheme has divided left-wing groups. Large numbers of workers and students protested in favour of the law, storming the parliament premises on the day the bill was due for final debate, prompting legislators to hurriedly approve it. The group leading these protests was KAJS (Social Security Action Committee) which described the day the law was passed as an ‘historic day for the Indonesian nation’. But even as KAJS proclaimed it was convinced the scheme would produce ‘social security and dignity’ for the people, it was set up a watchdog body to monitor its implementation. Other groups, such as the People’s Health Council (DKR) criticise the scheme for using an ‘insurance business’ model, a reference to the reliance on compulsory employee and informal sector contributions in place of a fully government-funded scheme.

Social security is one area where there has been sustained mobilisation by left-wing groups. But the extent of this mobilisation does not come close to explaining the changes that are taking shape in local and national social security regimes. Instead, we (again) see left-wing issues and ideas creeping into the public political domain, and becoming formal policy, without a strong left-wing political movement, let alone a strong labour-based or left-wing political party. It seems that opening the floodgates of democracy and subjecting politicians to the spur of competing for popular votes, as well as the continuing influence of a general leftist sensibility that proclaims defence of the interests of the poor, have combined to provide space for a social justice agenda.

Politics without the left?

Over the last decade or so, a conventional view of post-Suharto Indonesian politics has arisen among many observers: this is the age of oligarchs (see the analysis by Jeffrey Winters). At the centre, such observers point to the political ascendancy of the super-rich like Aburizal Bakrie, one of Indonesia’s richest men, who has risen to position of great influence as chair of Golkar. In the regions, a breed of even more rough-and-tumble local bosses and dynasts are building miniature political and business empires. The plundering of state resources for the benefit of the rich, in this view, is the defining feature of Indonesia’s contemporary political order.

This analysis is certainly not wrong, but it is not the whole picture. Indonesia made the transition to democracy not because of the machinations of the rich, but because of pressure from below. People’s movements – to say nothing of the political left – were insufficiently organised or powerful to be able to capture control of the new institutions of democracy because they were weakened by decades of repression. The inability of such movements to become much more powerful in subsequent years has a lot to do with the nature of Indonesia’s contemporary society and polity, especially the ubiquity of patronage distribution as a means of mollifying class resentments and building political bonds.

But the left is not an empty space on Indonesia’s political landscape, even if outside observers often ignore it. Ideals of social justice, of state intervention to assist the poor – and even of redistribution – are deeply embedded in the contemporary political culture, even if the political movements that articulate those ideals most consistently remain marginal and splintered.

Edward Aspinall researches Indonesian politics at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University and is a coordinating editor of Inside Indonesia.

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.