Dita Sari: 'The movements need a political breakthrough'

Dita Sari is arguably the most well-known progressive activist in Indonesia today. A former trade union leader and political prisoner under the Suharto regime, she is now the chairperson of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), which is the leading force in the new, broader National Liberation Party of Unity (Papernas). Sari was interviewed in Jakarta by Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle after the founding conference of Papernas in January, which selected her as its candidate for the 2009 presidential elections.

Now that Papernas has been launched, what is the future of the PRD?

The whole resources, infrastructure, energy, finances and political attention of the PRD are to be devoted to Papernas. Papernas will be our political face at least until the 2009 presidential elections.

This is not a new tactic for the PRD. Since the Suharto dictatorship fell, the PRD has participated in the elections in 1999 and 2002. We were not successful but we are trying to repeat this tactic with more preparation and concentration.

We also see this as an opportunity to grow. We are using the conditions set for electoral registration to set up many new branches.

We see that the extra-parliamentary movement, the one that we focused on very much since the 2004 elections, has failed to make a qualitative development. Mostly these movements are based on local and sectoral issues and the effort required to consolidate them into a more long-term political movement hasn't yet succeeded. So we see the 2009 presidential elections as an opportunity to do this.

With the focus now on building Papernas with a more limited political platform, what will happen to the PRD's political program?

The PRD tried to participate as much as possible in struggles on many issues. But we realised that we could not allow the fragmentation in the movements to result in the fragmentation of the party's energy. If we distribute our energy over many issues we will not be able to maximise our impact. So we see this presidential election campaign as a way of concentrating the party's energy.

We are going to prioritise building Papernas in the next period. We have had to choose between what issues we can take up and what issues we cannot, even in the mass organisations, like the unions. This was not a very easy decision because the PRD is very much a party of the movements. So it was not easy to convince many comrades to take this road. But we have made a decision and we must carry it out.

What will you do if despite your best efforts Papernas is unable to break through the domination of electoral politics by the parties of the rich elite?

Even to fulfill the requirements for electoral registration is very difficult. The department of justice requires that we have 180 branches. We have only 140 so far, so we still have a lot of work to do and only six months to get the next 40. And the electoral department requires that we have branches in at least 75% of all the districts in Indonesia. That is very hard. It means we will need about 270 branches!

If we fail to do this we are also preparing a second scenario of forming coalitions with other political parties to fulfill the requirements of the electoral laws.

Even if we are marginalised in the elections, we will have formed more branches and spread progressive political consciousness. We already have more people drawing nearer to us than before through Papernas. So even in the worst case scenario in the elections, we will have the big job of consolidating all these new Papernas branches, politically educating the new members and trying to win them to the politics of the PRD.

Will the PRD still retain its basic organisation and structure during this big turn towards building the new party?

I am the chairperson of the PRD but most of my work now is building the broader alliances on behalf of Papernas so that we can respond to the presidential elections. Some projects of the PRD will still carry on, such as our publication Pembebasan.

Our basic organisation will still be there. PRD is the driving force in Papernas. Before PRD members go to Papernas meetings we will discuss first as PRD members what we are going to bring to those meetings. But while the PRD will still be preserved, its structures will be reduced as Papernas structures develop.

The PRD has come to be associated with more than anti-imperialist and national-democratic politics. It is associated with socialist politics. Will this continue to be projected while you build Papernas around a more limited anti-imperialist platform?

Participating in the electoral process places some political limitations on us in Indonesia today. We knew that was one of the consequences of deciding to participate. We are willing to work within those limitations because it is necessary, but at the same time we seek to go beyond that. For instance, we will be campaigning against all attempts to introduce repressive electoral legislation, but we will still have to work within the framework of such laws.

It is almost impossible to campaign for socialism in the electoral sphere at present. But if there is a chance we — in the PRD — will seek ways to campaign for socialism, but perhaps not through Papernas.

You are probably best-known around the world as one of the founders and leaders of the FNPBI trade union federation. What is its future in this period of extreme neoliberal pressure, where workers are being laid off by the thousands and union militants victimised?

The FNPBI seeks to present political leadership in the trade union movement and part of this leadership is pointing out to the other trade unions that, if they want to survive in the current extremely difficult conditions, we need to make a political breakthrough. If unions simply try and organise in the traditional way, they will be defeated.

What is the approach of Papernas to the political movements for self-determination in Aceh and West Papua?

We understand that Indonesia is not a final project and that there has been repression of many regional movements that questioned being part of Indonesia. Papernas has not yet formally adopted a position on self-determination. But I am certain it will strongly oppose the intervention by the military or the police against any local political movements and respect their right to self-determination, whether that includes a demand for independence or not. That is a basic democratic right and so far we agree on those principles in Papernas. We have not gone beyond that to advocate independence for Aceh or West Papua.

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