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Southeast Asia & International Affairs Update - 2009 Indonesian elections: Reflections 1

Max Lane - September 8, 2008

[The following are notes intended to be the first in a series of informal commentaries on the 2009 Indonesian election campaign. I will try to write these reasonably regularly but no guarantees. I hope they are of interest.]

The Indonesian election campaign has started, following the announcement of the 44 political parties that passed the electoral verification process. The most obvious signs have been the waves of TV and newspaper broadcast by the most well-healed parties, particularly the new parties established by ex-general Wiranto (HANURA) and ex-general Prabowo (GERINDRA). In reality, however, electoral politics has been ongoing now for at least two years. This has been the result of the new laws passed a few years ago to allow direct elections for the positions of Governor and Vice-Governor as well as for Bupati and Vice-Bupati. Bupatis are head of Kabupaten, the administrative region below governor. The Kabupaten are important administrative units because following the passing of decentralization laws in 2001-2, the Kabupaten administrations have had significantly enhanced budgetary powers.

Elections for governors and bupatis have been staggered throughout the last two years. This means that it is possible to identify some general trends and features of electoral political activity. Some key points are:

Ideological consensus

It would be tempting to conclude that policy and ideology have played no role in these processes, with no clear pattern to the wide range of combinations and alliances that have taken place. Everybody has been in alliance with everybody at some time or another: fundamentalist with secular; "nationalist" with "religious"; so-called opposition with government parties and so on. However, the more appropriate conclusion is that there is general consensus among all the currently registered parties that the ideological, economic and political perspectives currently reflected in government policies are more-or-less acceptable to all. Differences between parties reflect more the politico-cultural outlooks of segments of the elite whose patron-client praxis is different. These different patron-client praxis in turn can flow from there being different regional bases or different religious bases or different histories of interventions into electoral or other politics.

There has been a fairly consistent record of the parties in the parliament all voting for the major economic, social and political legislation that have become before the parliament. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) has been the most active in attempting to present itself as a party of opposition, having taken a few symbolic actions, such as staging a walk-out at the time of the vote of the new very neo-liberal foreign investment law. The party of (at that time) Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), the National Awakening Party (PKB) also staged a walk-out. All other parties voted for the legislation. Voting for pro-neoliberal legislation, and for the government budgets based on its neo-liberal strategy, has been the general pattern in the parliament underlining the fact that there is no ideological differences on economic issues among the parties. Almost all parties, including the smaller parties, also voted for the new electoral legislation aimed at making it difficult for new parties, especially un-moneyed parties, to register.

(The only really consistent policy difference to emerge has been over moral-religious issues with the more conservative religious based parties, such as the United Development Party (PPP), the Star and Crescent Party (PBB), and the Star Reform Party (PBR) supporting the more harsher versions of laws making religious education obligatory, women's dress codes harsher and, outside of the formal parliamentary processes, mobilizing together demanding the banning of organizations they consider heretical. The other parties have either resisted this, or tried to find a way to acquiesce quietly or compromise.)


One common feature of the electoral results has been a manifest cynicism among the voters. Turn-out has been low for Indonesian standards, with between 30-40% of eligible voters either not voting or not registering to vote in many elections. I suspect that the figure is actually higher given the high mobility of the Indonesian semi-proletariat and the difficulty in registering them at a fixed address for election purposes. Another manifestation of the cynicism towards all the parties is that the parties themselves, having picked up on how much they are disliked, have increasingly put forward candidates not associated with them historically. Thus they nominate show-biz celebrities, religious figures, academics and other non-party community personalities. Interestingly, one category of non-party figures that have been tried, but have failed, are prominent ex-generals and police officials. Celebrities and non-party "community personalities" have been doing better. Of course, none of these figures have been part of any political activity in opposition to the pro-neoliberal economic strategy nor the policies aimed at defending the hegemony of the establishment parties and figures.

New parties

44 parties succeeded in registering for the 2009 elections, including the 17 parties already in the parliament. I know little about most of these parties (which I suspect will be the same for most potential Indonesian voters). Of the new parties (though some may be renamed parties that have tried and failed to register for earlier elections), it is HANURA, headed by ex-general Wiranto and GERINDRA (headed by ex-General Prabowo) that will have the highest name recognition as a result of quite substantial television advertising.

There are no signs yet of any of the other new participants for 2009 having a campaigning capacity that may allow them to have a significant national impact. Most of the media discussion of the parties still focuses upon what are considered by the media commentators to be the front runners to have a significant parliamentary representation. These are:

Neither HANURA nor GERINDRA have entered most commentator's calculations at this point, apart from people speculating on the impact of their advertising campaign and the obvious access ex-generals Wiranto and Prabowo have to funds. Of course, the campaign period has just begun and still has seven months to go, so nothing can be ruled out yet in terms of any of the new parties or the older smaller parties finding gimmicks or tactics to propel them forward.

Social movements and "civil society" opposition

A section of the social and political activist sectors, claiming to be opposed to the neoliberal economic strategy of the government and to the policies aimed at institutionalizing the political establishment's hegemony have attempted to register to participate through new parties in the elections.

Peoples' Unions Party

There had been two efforts for parties with their roots and base in the social political activist milieu to register for the elections. One was the attempt by activists from various, mainly rural NGO, advocacy and community campaign groups to register the Partai Perserikatan Rakyat (Peoples Unions Party PPR). The PPR was formed in 2005 and aimed for registration for the 2009 elections. It tried to amalgamate activists from a range of the local community activist groups into a national electoral party. However, it could not consolidate enough people and resources to meet the onerous bureaucratic qualifications for parties to register (which require not only proof of the numbers of members in more than half of Indonesia's regions, but also proof of the existence of registered and equipped physical offices.) I am not clear where the PPR people are concentrating their political efforts now.

Peoples Democratic Party

The second effort was by the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) which formed a new party, PAPERNAS (Party of National Liberation Unity), to attempt to gain electoral registration. PRD had made a similar attempt to register a party called POPOR for the 2004 elections. The effort, which had begun just a few months before the deadline for verification failed. This time they began their effort to recruit PAPERNAS members and activists much earlier. Despite a massive effort and a substantial increase in the PRD's activist resource e base, reflected through the PAPERNAS structures, there were still not enough people or resources to expect to be able to successfully register for the elections. As a result, the PRD leadership adopted a position of seeking to stand its leaders as candidates for the Star Reform Party (Partai Bintang Reformasi), a formally Islamic based party. A minority of the leadership and membership opposed this decision and were eventually expelled from the PRD as a result.

The chairperson of the PRD and the person originally nominated as PAPERNAS's presidential candidate, Dita Sari, is now one of six PRD leaders, standing under the banner of the PBR.

In most of the left, activist milieu, this move is seen as the PRD breaking way from its earlier trajectory, where it was seen as both a socialist and a mass action strategy oriented party. It an interview, with the new publication JURNAL BERSATU, PRD leader and PAPERNAS secretary-general, Harris Sitorus, stated: "Papernas itself is projecting to take state power, because real power lies in the state institutions, such as the parliament and so fourth. It is here that political power is established, not in the streets." Previously, the PRD saw extra-parliamentary struggle through mass action as the primary form of struggle and the arena in which working people would develop their power; now street protest mobilizations, which have become fewer in any case, are subordinated to the electoral ambitions.

The decision has also bewildered people because of both the very conservative religious base and policies of the PBR, as well as the extreme opportunism of its leadership generally. I just note here a few basic points about the PBR's record:

According to a newspaper report (Java Post), Dita Sari stated that:

"She does not have a problem with the PBR being an Islamic based party. This is because much of the PBR's program is in accordance with her [views]. For example, economic independence that is not dependent upon foreigners, the option of abolishing the foreign debt and economic development in rural areas as a priority. "I see the PBR as a party that is trying to introduce Islamic principles with a more open understanding," she said. (more)

Dita Sari may have been referring to a 'political contract' that the PBR signed stating a 'minimum commitment" with the Indonesian Union for the Poor (SRMI), according to KOMPAS newspapers:

The Minimum Commitment asserts that the PBR will struggle for national self-sufficiency through accelerating the rescue of national assets, abolishing the foreign debt and national industrialisation. The PBR was also asked to struggle for healthcare guarantees and free education, not to evict the poor from their homes and provide job opportunities for the people. (more)

Despite all its election period rhetoric and "political contracts", given its record, it is difficult to see the PBR as anything but another of the opportunist, socially reactionary and neo-liberal complicit components of the bourgeois political establishment. Like all of the parties in the parliament, we can expect it during the next seven months of campaigning to be using more nationalist and populist rhetoric. All of these parties will contort whichever way the need to in order to attract this or that constituency.


The PRD's new policy of seeking to convince the people to campaign for, support and vote for the PBR, despite its record, stands in direct counter-position of the efforts of a large number of activist groups throughout the country, as well as the long-term projections of the PRD aimed at developing a political movement and political culture that broke with the masses' dependence on the political elite and its establishment. It should be pointed out here that the minority that was expelled from the PRD for its opposition to the new line has formed as the Political Committee of the Poor PRD (KPRM-PRD), which in turn has also formed the Union of the Politics of the Poor (PPRM), comprising KPRM-PRD members, PAPERNAS members in agreement with the basic position of the KPRM-PRD and other newly recruited activists. However, the KPRM-PRD and PPRM are not the only other political or activist groups who are choosing a different and counter-posed route, to the PRD.

Before commenting on the KPRM-PRD and such other groups, it should also be noted that the adoption of a policy of working inside political parties of the political establishment has not been confined to the current leadership of the Dita Sari wing of the PRD. Both other PRD leaders, as well as activists from the NGO sectors, have increasingly adopted this approach. In some respects, the 2009 elections represents the defeat of the 1990s generation given that such a large segment of them are being absorbed into the institutions that they had previously declared their enemies.

Other PRD leaders who left the PRD earlier to join parties of the establishment all of them complicit in the implementation of neo-liberal and anti-democratic policies include:

As more parties announce their candidates for the 2009 elections, we see more and more names of NGO and former student activists appearing. The PDIP, which has been the most consistent in presenting itself as an opposition (sometimes publishing full page advertisements listing its acts of parliamentary opposition to the Yudhoyono government) appears to have absorbed the most activists. In fact, many activists had earlier been recruited through their employment as research officers to PDIP members of parliament or to PDIP institutions. But all the parties have been able to recruit former activists, including HANURA and GERINDRA.

The result of the absorption into one or other of the parties of the establishment of so many former activists, whether en bloc as with Dita Sari's taking of her whole party in that direction, or through the shift of individual PRD or other activists, represents a kind of decomposition of the 1990s activist vanguard. This also means that the processes visible in the attempts re-compose a mass action oriented political left, building itself independent from and opposed to the political establishment, are more and more involving a post-1998 generation of activists.

Political Alternatives Independent from the Post-New Order Establishment

A fundamental feature of the transition from the period of Suharto's New Order dictatorship in 1998 to the current situation is that the student led mass movement of the 1990s did not produce a political party, either electorally oriented or mass action strategy oriented, that challenged the political establishment that had developed during the New Order, which included both the cliques around Suharto and at the top of the army as well as the cliques that had been more distant from Suharto (and the booty that came with being close to the power centre.) What rivalries that emerged in party politics after the fall of Suharto had little to do with basic differences on policy questions (except perhaps some constrained differences on the role of religion), but rather on where one's clique (or new clique in formation) stood in relation to sources of power and money (or power over money).

The anti-dictatorship movement of the 1990s had not been in existence long enough developing on a mass scale mainly between June 1996 and May 1998 to consolidate either ideological perspectives or institutions. After the dictatorship fell and relatively open electoral activity became possible, there were not either the ideological or institutional resources to compete against the myriad parties of the establishment. Those parties drew upon substantial financial resources, depending on how wealthy their core cliques were, and substantial ideological resources, drawing on a combination of elements of the legacy of the 33 years of Suharto's period and from religious, cultural and remnant historical legacies. The main historical ideological resource available to radical activists namely Left Soekarnoism (which included advocating unity with communists) was not accessible both because of legal suppression and because such an outlook had been so successfully blackened in the minds of the population.

Various political groups and figures that had emerged out of the 1990s activism, including the PRD, stood in the 1999 elections, when there were no serious regulatory obstacles. However, none made any headway against the parties of the establishment, both those representing the forces of Suharto's New Order or their rivals from within the elite. Building on this victory, the political establishment, through its parties in the parliament, have used the last ten years to consolidate its hold over electoral politics and political in general.

This obvious dominance by the two sets of parties those of the New Order and what the PRD analysed as the "fake reformists" (reformis gadungan) quickly established as a major priority for those sectors radicalized by their experience of the 1990s and opposed to the neo-liberal economic strategies the building of a political alternative to what the "New Order remnants" and "fake reformists" represented.

The PRD's campaigns to establish POPOR and PAPERNAS as independent political organizations with programmes that challenged the establishment's economic and political agenda and which hoped to break the masses dependence on the elite's parties were a very important reflection of that priority. But the processes pushing forward towards the formation of such an alternative, especially after 2001/2 were not confined to the efforts of the PRD. In the sphere of electoral campaigning, I have already mentioned the PPR. But there were other efforts also that were not constructed around an electoral orientation. In this reflection, I will just mention them in brief. In the course of commenting on Indonesian politics over the next several months, there will be more scope to discuss them. There are also some related comments on this blog, in earlier posts relating to the formation of new left-wing alliances and to the round of protest actions last May-June against the government's decision to increase the prices of fuel.

Sectoral organisations and political blocs

It is difficult to put a precise number to it, but it is very obvious that since 1998 (and actually starting before that but under heavy constraints) the number of sectoral organizations, as they called in Indonesia, has increased dramatically. These include trade unions, peasant organizations, other campaign oriented occupational based organizations (such as for fishermen, street traders etc), student organizations, women's groups and so on. A few of these have now organized nationally, but many more operate on a local or provincial level, while starting to network more nationally. Even harder to calculate are the ad hoc, temporary action committees that have been set up around this or that issue.

Out of this ferment, it is possible to identify at least two, perhaps three, ideologically based political formations besides (previously, before 2007) the PRD and, since 2007, the KPRM-PRD presenting the perspective of building an independent and progressive political alternative to counter the political establishment. These definitely include the Working Peoples Union (PRP) and the Peoples Struggle Front (FPR). The general political perspective of the PRP is outlined in an interview with its Secretary-General, Irwansyah, with the leftwing journal, JURNAL BERSATU, and which has been translated by James Balowski. I have never seen a similar summary of the perspective if the FPR, or its core political groupings. It is clear however that that they give a higher priority to peasant land struggles. There is a possible third stream reflected in the collaboration between the Indonesian Students Sarekat (SMI) and various worker organizations.

The PRP and the KPRM-PRD (see the interviews with Irwansyah and Zely Ariane) explicitly advocate socialist goals. Along with the SMI, they also emphasise mass struggle and organization as a strategic outlook, based on intervening to organize and mobilize the widespread discontent in mass action. Zely Ariance captures the basic features of this approach in the JURNAL BERSATU interview with her. First she points to the most organized and radicalized political groupings:

First, the movements that still have a link with those of the 1980s and 1990s, such as the Green Indonesia Union (SHI), the Working People's Association (PRP), the Workers Challenge Alliance (ABM), the Indonesian Farmers Federation (FSPI), the National Students Front (FMN) and so forth. This spectrum is more open to programs to solve neoliberalism radically or in stages and their action committees have demands that are quite radical politically.

The SHI and FMN are associated with the Peoples Struggle Front (FPR). The ABM and FSPI are multi-stream in terms of the ideological influences inside them. Ariane then continues:

Second, there is the spontaneous, fragmented and economist movement, which does not have or only has a small link with the movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Included within this movement is the response or resistance by the people that statistically could reach the thousands every month. Their actions are also becoming richer with revolutionary methods such as occupations, strikes and so forth. This spectrum is far broader and must be united and influenced by the first spectrum of the movement.

The PRP, KPRM-PRD, ABM and a range of other organizations established the National Liberation Front (FPN) in May this year. They organized a series of protest actions through late May and into early June against the fuel price increases. This was undoubtedly an important step in the experimentation that will take place if these groups commit seriously to the unity that Ariane mentioned above. The ideological divisions between the FPN groups and the FPR appear to block serious, ongoing collaboration at the moment at least.

Realpolitik contradictions

The perspective being pursued by those working through the political parties of the bourgeois establishment, among whom there are no serious policy or ideological differences, now stand in strong counter-position to those trying to unite and radicalize the myriad of struggle groupings into a political force, independent of and which can therefore struggle against the dominance of the political and business elite. In the context of almost forty years of monopoly of politics by the parties of the elite and its factions and the culture of dependence that has developed, the decision to call on the masses to continue to work through on or other of these parties, rather than build an alternative will stand in a very sharp counter-position to those trying to build an independent alternative.

The campaign is just beginning and so it is not possible yet to identify just how this counter-position might be manifested in political conflict. The PRP and the trade union based ABM have called for a boycott of the elections. But it is not clear yet whether they have a proposal, or the resources, to attempt lead an active campaign to struggle for a major boycott election or to link it to concrete campaigns for political demands. I have not seen a KPRM-PRD or an FPN statement on this issue yet either. It is likely that the next 1 or 2 months will see more discussion and debate on how these groupings will finalise electoral tactics, especially given they are not standing in the elections, and how they analyse what priority they should give the elections.

It is perhaps difficult to identify yet what precise forms conflicts and contradictions might develop between those claiming to be on the Left (if they still do) advocating support for the elite parties and those trying to build a force or forces counterposed to those parties. However, it is already clear that a fundamental way that electoral politics is already starting to be framed will be challenging the ex-radicals cleverness in formulating justifications for their decisions. In the absence of genuine and serious policy and ideological differences between any of these parties (at least the ones in the parliament and mentioned in the media), their real concern how close can they get to the centre of power - is quickly revealed. Seats in parliament are all well and good, but the real question of power in the current Indonesian system is who will be President (or lower down Governor and Bupati). Already (in fact for along time now), the jockeying for alliances that could assure one or other party or parties the presidency has been publicly underway. It is in this process, that all the other posturing is revealed as just that posturing.

The PDIP may try to pose as an opposition, but the series of high profile joint events with GOLKAR where the idea of a PDIP-GOLKAR alliance has been floated, deflates that pose very effectively. Similarly, when the PDIP or other parties ally with GOLKAR, Demokrat, their pretence of having serious policy or ideological differences disintegrate. The same applies for the PBR. When PBR chairperson, Bursah Zarnubi, says only positive things about the head of GOLKAR, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, or makes no criticism of former head of GOLKAR and Suharto cabinet member, Akbar Tanjung, when discussing Tanjung's possible presidential candidature, or campaigns for GOLKAR governorial candidates, it is an effective statement to the public of the absence of any serious policy or ideological differences.

Progressive or left activists developing justifications for working through such parties such as the PDIP, PBR or any of the others, will no doubt work out ways to justify calling on the people to support political leaders who can contemplate alliances with GOLKAR. They may face still more difficult predicaments. If Wiranto and/or Prabowo gather even 5-10% of the vote they too will be in the game of gathering together alliances to nominate themselves as president; or enter in alliances where they are vice-presidential candidates. In neither case, can you rule any combination as impossible.

For more information and analysis on Indonesia visit Max Lane's blog at http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/maxlaneintlasia/

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