INDONESIA: Wahid, Sari call for 'people's congress'



JAKARTA — On June 25, the Jakarta Media Centre was packed to overflowing. Former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and Dita Sari, the most prominent labour movement figure in Indonesia, were going to speak on the same platform.

Representatives of Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and Vice-President Hamzah Haz's United Development Party (PPP) were also invited, but expectations were low that they would attend.

Judhilherry Rustam, representing the Vigilance Against the New Order Committee, a watchdog group on corruption and abuse of power, was also on the panel. I had also been invited to speak as an academic observer of Indonesia and a sympathiser of the democratic movement in Indonesia.

Wahid's speech was a combination of criticisms of basic government policy together with factional attacks, sometimes quite bitter, on his rivals within the political elite — Megawati and Hamzah Haz in particular.

The next day, Rakyat Merdeka, a daily paper with a mass circulation among Jakarta's urban poor and workers, carried the front-page headline, “Gus Dur gives a report card”. The paper's report summarised Wahid's criticisms of the Megawati government in point form:

  • Corruption and collusion have continued under Megawati's presidency.
  • The state-owned enterprises have been turned into milch cows for the political elite.
  • The livelihood of the people has been taken from them.
  • Many state assets have been let slip away into private hands.
  • The government is subservient to the dictates of the IMF, World Bank and the US.
  • The government prioritises the interests of the big corporations.
  • The parliament has become a place where votes are bought and sold.
  • The parliament has acted unconstitutionally.

The article also reported Wahid's advocacy of a five-year moratorium on all foreign debt repayments so that the money could be used to fund improvements in the economic welfare of the common people.

Not surprisingly, these criticisms received strong support from the audience of mainly students, urban poor, political activists and journalists at the June 25 meeting. There was little disagreement either from the speakers that these were serious criticisms that needed to be made.

Dita Sari concretised some of these criticisms by raising the issues of returning price subsidies to basic goods and protecting local industries. She also emphasised that these criticisms indicated the Megawati government was not capable of dealing with the current economic and political crisis and that, therefore, it had to be replaced.

An interesting debate followed on how to achieve a new government. All speakers, including both Wahid and Sari, agreed that there should be both extra-parliamentary as well as parliamentary efforts to bring about a change of government. The differences centred on the potential mechanisms for advancing these efforts and ultimately, on what kind of government was needed.

I had gone to the meeting wanting to pass on my impressions of the situation during the month or so I had been in Indonesia. One of the most striking things was the emergence of new social protest movements in the 1990s.

New trade unions and peasant groups formed, the student movement grew and led the overthrow of General Suharto's military dictatorship, a feminist movement started to emerge and NGOs were formed. Central to this process also was the mushrooming of action committees on local issues.

Since the fall of Suharto and the opening up of more opportunities for public expression of dissent, scores more trade unions, peasants', women's, professional and other interest groups have been formed. Ad hoc action committees have emerged everywhere. I doubt whether there is an Indonesian anywhere who has not been involved in a street protest or who does not have friends who have.

There are scores, probably hundreds, of radical or at least critical, discussion groups, study groups and small publishers of radical literature. While the student movement lacks any common focus, students' interest in politics is deeper.

Part of the three-hour discussion at the June 25 meeting focused on how this extremely dispersed and leaderless process of politicisation and protest could be galvanised to provide a political alternative to the government of the political elite. One suggestion was the formation of a “people's congress” that could bring together all these elements to try to hammer out an alternative political and economic program.

Dita Sari immediately supported this suggestion. Wahid responded, at first, with a general statement that neither the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), of which Sari is a leading member, nor his own National Awakening Party (PKB), could achieve political change on their own, and that they had to work together. However, when pressed by journalists at the press conference immediately after the debate, he stated his support for the people's congress proposal.

“This is a good proposal”, he said. “But any steering committee or organising committee must be representative. That will be an issue.” Later, another journalist asked what the possible timing would be for such a gathering. “To be frank”, Wahid answered, “The PKB has made no preparations on this issue yet. We haven't even been able to get our internal problems fixed yet, let alone to prepare for external issues.”

Another journalist asked: “The people need something to happen, Gus Dur. Do they have to wait for the PKB to fix itself first?” To this Wahid replied: “I think Dita should work on this.”

Was Wahid trying to reduce his commitment to supporting such a congress by urging Dita Sari to take the first step? In any case, most of the mainstream media over the next couple of days carried articles with headlines like: “Gus Dur agrees to support pro-democracy congress” or “Gus Dur supports people's congress”.

There is currently a discussion in the Indonesian parliament (MPR) over whether the country's next president should be elected directly or, as is the case now, by the MPR. The PKB supports direct elections, as do all the other parties except the PDIP. The military-police faction in the MPR also opposes direct elections. Wahid made it clear that he was willing to stand again as president and said he was already campaigning in the regions.

One frustration that I thought many people must feel with the presidential elections is that the law forbids anyone under the age of 40 from standing as a candidate. I raised this issue at the June 25 meeting, pointing out that it meant that Dita Sari could not stand as a presidential candidate.

In his criticisms of the Megawati government, Wahid attacked the government's prioritisation of the interests of the “black conglomerates” and international capital. He said that the enterprises of the “little people” — the peddlers, the food stalls, etc. — were suffering. He used the term “people's capitalism” to refer to the kind of socio-economic system that he seemed to prefer.

There was no time to debate this out, although one older member of the audience challenged the panel to state their preference for either capitalism or socialism. Dita Sari took this opportunity to restate the PRD's critique of the government's surrender to neo-liberal policies and to argue that the only way to ensure an alternative program in the interests of the poor was implemented was to struggle for socialism.

[Max Lane is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies, University of Wollongong. Lane is also national chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific. Visit <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 10, 2002.
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