Around 200 pick-up trucks and cars comprised the long snake of a protest caravan making its way along Jakarta's main thoroughfare, Jalan Thamrin, after a rally outside the Presidential Palace, where speakers called on the people to "withdraw the mandate" of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The occasion for the protest was the anniversary of the mass protests and riots against the Suharto government that took place on January 15, 1974.
The protest was initiated by Hariman Siregar, the central leader of the 1974 protests who at the time was chairperson of the University of Indonesia Students Council. He was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to eight years' prison. He has remained a figure associated with the student and democratic movements, though sometimes also involved in alliances and manoeuvres with figures close to the power centre. He was close to B.J. Habibie during the later years of Suharto and was adviser briefly to former General Wiranto in the lead-up to the 2004 elections.
The January 15, 2007, demonstration represented a new tactical orientation by Siregar, partially ending his approach of trying to work through alliances with senior elite figures. In the lead pick-up truck, he was accompanied by Dita Sari, chairperson of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), and Eggy Sujana, a politician of Islamic background who was recently arrested for insulting the president. Sujana took his case to the courts, which ruled that the law banning "insulting the head of state" was unconstitutional. Speakers on the platform outside the palace included poet and long-time critic of Suharto, W.S. Rendra.
At the press conference that announced the "withdraw the mandate" protest, Siregar argued that Indonesia's democracy was a formal, procedural democracy, without substance. "Current policies were aimed at strengthening institutions, but without any empowerment or strengthening of the people themselves. And in the end the politics of the institutions was based on money."
He criticised the political life of these institutions, arguing that in the parliament, for example, there is no significant focus being given to the major problems of the country. Instead the focus is on what he described as "celebrity issues". He was talking about recent scandals such as the circulation of a short video, taken with a mobile phone, of a naked MP in a hotel room with a popular singer.
He replied to criticism coming from supporters of the government, or rather the president, that the theme of the protest — "withdraw the mandate" — amounted to a call to rebellion and was outside of the constitution, by emphasising that the people were not supposed to go to sleep after the elections just because the government had won. He also emphasised that people who were not members of a political party continue to have political rights to protest and raise their concerns.
Reflecting a criticism that is heard more and more widely in the press and among the public, Siregar told Green Left Weekly later that the government operated only at the level of general perspective, with no real firm initiatives to develop solutions. He pointed to the statistics that the protest was highlighting: 143 million people below the poverty line; 3.5 million unemployed graduates; 12 million children under five malnourished; 2 million children dropping out of school; 13 million illiterates; and 400,000 small businesses bankrupt.
He also raised the issue of the extensive surrender to foreign control of most of Indonesia's natural resources, as well as its banking and insurance industries. He made a reference to the well-known, oft-repeated statement by former president Sukarno that Indonesia refused to become "a nation of coolies, and a coolie among nations". Being interviewed by a journalist from the magazine Gatra, he stated that repayments of the foreign debt should be stopped and the money used to provide education and health services for the people.
Even though Siregar's campaign had only been running a week or so, it has succeeded in raising the political temperature. "Hariman's initiative has divided the political public into two clear camps", Sukardi Rinakit told GLW. Rinakit, an outspoken intellectual, has also been listed as one of five possible presidential candidates that the United Party for National Liberation (Papernas), backed by progressive forces including the PRD, would consider supporting. "Whether the conditions exist for the movement to snowball and force the president to resign or for there to be a referendum or early election is unlikely though. But this division may result in laying the basis for a broader umbrella coalition."
The president's office has attacked the "withdraw mandate" call as unconstitutional. There has been a chorus of criticisms from the mainstream political parties decrying the protest and calling on everybody to wait for the 2009 elections if they want to change governments. This has come from the ruling party in the Suharto period, Golkar, as well as Megawati Sukarnoputri's party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP).
If Siregar continues his push, tensions are likely to rise further and create complications for the plans of the major parties. While calling on Siregar and other supporters of the "withdraw mandate" call to go through the electoral processes, the established parties and their supporters have also been working to tighten the gamut of laws regulating the election process to ensure that there can be no new entries into the game. They are likely to make the process of "verification" of new parties, such as Papernas, even more onerous than under existing laws.
Furthermore, they are also planning to increase the electoral threshold that a party must have gained in the last election in order to be able to participate in the next elections. One proposal is to increase the threshold to 3% of the national vote, which would eliminate nine parties currently in parliament that between them gathered 15 million votes. There have also been proposals to increase the threshold to 5% or even 10%. Calling on dissatisfied sectors of society to work through the electoral channels, but then to close them off at the same time, will sharpen the political divide now emerging, especially if Siregar continues his campaign.
On January 16, Papernas also held its first national press conference to announce its coming congress and its views on possible presidential candidates (see GLW #694). The chairperson of the Preparatory Committee for Papernas (KP-Papernas), Domingus Octavius, stated that Papernas supported the "withdraw mandate" protest as a positive step, but criticised the movement for lacking sufficient programmatic content. "Our criticism of our friend Hariman is that we must present a program that provides a solution to the problems the people are suffering." PRD secretary-general Agus Jabo, who is chairperson of KP-Papernas's presidium, emphasised the centrality of the "Three Pillars" (Tri Panji) of national unity being proposed by Papernas. These are nationalisation of the minerals industry; cancellation of the foreign debt; and the building of factories to develop national industry. He argued that these were the key bridges to being able to increase the welfare of the people.
Journalists and a range of invited guests at the press conference raised the issue of the agricultural sector and the need to defend the livelihood of Indonesia's millions of small farmers. Agus Jabo pointed out that the Tri Panji were part of a 10-point program, which included policies that were needed to develop the agricultural sector. He emphasised that "Papernas thinks that these three first steps must be taken if the country is to have the capacity to invest and develop other areas of the economy".
The Papernas founding congresws went ahead despite attempts by the right-wing thugs to close it down. It was Indonesia's most important political event for some time, establishing an organisation that can launch a public campaign for a specific program of solutions for the country's huge problems.
Papernas still faces a huge task to break through the prison of regulations that the established parties are putting in place to prevent new parties entering the electoral arena. If the established parties, including Golkar — the main support base of the current government — succeed in blocking pathways through the electoral system, frustration with the system will increase, with more people open to listening to both the programmatic ideas of Papernas as well as the proposal to "withdraw the mandate" of the president from outside of the rules of the game set by the established forces. If such a dynamic starts to gain momentum, even more social and political forces may move into motion.
[For more information about Papernas visit <http://asia-pacific-action.org/southeastasia/indonesia/papernas/papernas.htm>.]