Indonesia: Left group holds first open congress

April 12, 2015

The left-wing People's Democratic Party (PRD) held its eighth congress in Jakarta from March 24-26. This was the first time its congress was held openly.

The open congress marks an important new stage of development for the party, which has a history of underground organising dating back to the era of the Suharto dictatorship that was overthrown in 1998.

The congress launched a large-scale campaign for the PRD to achieve the stringent requirements of electoral registration in time for the 2019 elections. It also emphasised politics designed to forge national unity in the struggle against imperialism.

The PRD was formed out of — and helped lead — a resurgence of struggle against the Suharto regime in the 1990s. Suharto came to power in a 1965 military coup that involved massacres that killed an estimated 1 million leftists.

The situation meant the early PRD activists played a particularly heroic role in resisting one of the region's longest-running and most brutal military dictatorships. They supported East Timor's right to self-determination as well as policies to improve the economic interests of Indonesia's poor.

A number of PRD leaders served long prison sentences for their roles in organising opposition to Suharto. These were only cut short after the regime was toppled.

In the period since, the Indonesian left has fragmented. Several new left-wing groups have been formed, with many tracing their origins to splits from the PRD. However, the PRD remains a major force on the Indonesian left.

The congress presented a picture of a vibrant, young and confident party. The politics presented can be summed up with the three notions of Pancasila, Trisakti and the call for a “fourth republic”.

Pancasila is the official philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state. It was established by Sukarno — Indonesia's first president — after the country won independence from the Dutch in the 1940s. The word means “five principles”, namely: belief in God; a just and civilised society; national unity; democracy; and— as PRD members describe it — socialism.

Sukarno developed Pancasila as an ideological tool to win unity between Communists, nationalists and Muslims in the struggle for national independence.

It remained Indonesia's official ideology after Suharto seized power and in the post-Suharto period.

The party's 2010 congress changed the PRD's own stated ideology from socialism to Pancasila.

PRD chairperson Agus Jabo reaffirmed this change in an address to the latest congress. Jabo emphasised that this was not a political retreat by the party since socialism is encompassed in the idea of Pancasila.

At the congress, several PRD activists told me that Pancasila had never been properly implemented. They believed the struggle to implement Pancasila would bring out its socialist characteristics. They said it was also crucial to help achieve national unity in the struggle against imperialism — the basic problem faced by Indonesia today.

For its part, Trisakti refers to political sovereignty, economic sovereignty and cultural independence. The PRD envisions it playing a similar role in the struggle against imperialism.

The congress placed great importance on the struggle for a fourth republic in Indonesia. The first three republics refer to: Sukarno's post independence government; the New Order Suharto dictatorship; and the current reformasi (“reform”) period of capitalist, representative democracy.

This represents a call for a decisive break with the capitalist and imperialist-dominated status quo.

Nevertheless, underlining the open nature of the congress, the PRD invited a number of establishment figures to address the congress. These included figures from the government of Joko Widowo, who was electing on a moderately reforming platform.

One of these was Budiman Sudjatmiko, now a member of national parliament representing the same political party as Jokowi but who had been the PRD's founding chairperson and who had been jailed by the Suharto regime. Sudjatmiko spoke about his role in establishing a new law relating to rural regions.

The campaign to prepare for the 2019 elections will be a major endeavour since the party has to demonstrate an active presence across the country — including members from every province, district and sub-district in Indonesia. This amounts to thousands of localities.

The congress was attended by international guests from East Timor, the Malaysian Socialist Party, the Party of the Labouring Masses in the Philippines, and Australia's Socialist Alliance.

[Alex Bainbridge is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]

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