Liberal and radical democracy in Indonesian elections

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Liberal and radical democracy in Indonesian elections

By Max Lane

It took the Suharto regime five to seven years to become firmly established in Indonesia after Suharto seized power in the 1965 coup.

The process required the slaughter of more than 1 million people, the imprisonment for more than 10 years of around 14,000 people and the sacking of thousands of workers in sectors known to be more militant. It also required the banning of scores of newspapers, the imposition of tight censorship and the banning of left-wing organisations. All trade union activity, even that which was government-controlled, was banned outright for 10 years; then there were another 20 years of bans on independent trade unions.

By the early 1970s, all power was centralised in the hands of the dictator, President Suharto.

Suharto made agreements with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund which paved the way for massive inflows of foreign loans. Fuelled by this money, and also by petro-dollars after 1975, the Indonesian economy "stabilised" and grew at 6-8% per year.

By the end of 1970s, the expansion of industry, commerce and agriculture, even though narrowly based, had spawned a rapidly growing "middle class": lawyers, doctors, university students and academics, engineers, other scientists, journalists, business management personnel and sometimes professional politicians.

Many resented all the restrictions they had to live and work under: arts and media censorship, corruption in the legal system, nepotism in business overriding merit and efficiency, and corruption and bureaucratic collusion making commercial contracts meaningless. By the 1980s, even the World Bank issued a special report on the need for the "rule of law" in Indonesia.

On the campuses, students were initially allowed to be politically active, a privilege they inherited from the right-wing student organisations which had supported Suharto's repression and slaughter. But by the early 1970s, Suharto had begun to take these privileges away.

Anticommunist students who nevertheless criticised Suharto's corruption were jailed, exiled or threatened with severe action. Students who organised protest movements were imprisoned.

By 1978, all student representative councils were banned, along with all political activity on campuses. Students joined the ranks of the discontented.

By 1980, there were scores of non-government organisations reflecting the concerns of the middle class. The desire for an end to arbitrary rule in politics and business permeated the middle class, which continued to expand.

From this milieu came some of the most high profile and outspoken critics of Suharto: student leader Dr Hariman Siregar, lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution, former Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin, other retired generals, publisher Gunawan Muhammad, former parliamentarian Sri Bintang Pamungkas and labour lawyer Muchtar Pakpahan.

Despite their media prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s, however, these people never organised a political movement against the dictatorship. These liberals' vision did not include organising the country's millions of workers and peasants, and they remained helpless, bleating their complaints before a seemingly all-powerful regime.

It was only the emergence of a revolutionary democratic current in the early 1990s, which started to organise peasants and workers and which developed a militant current among students, that put the regime under real threat.

Liberal democracy in 1999

The middle-class liberals' inability to organise is being manifested in the 1999 election campaign. The poll is scheduled for June 7.

Some liberals have been absorbed into the leaderships of those parties with a long-term constituency, such as Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle or Abdurrahman Wahid's National Awakening Party. More have gone into Amien Rais' National Mandate Party (PAN), which is one of the reasons for its organisational weakness.

However, the liberals who were most outspoken against Suharto have formed their own parties. Sri Bintang Pamungkas has formed the United Democracy Party, and Pakpahan is associated with the National Workers Party.

Neither party has made an impact during the last few weeks. They are organisationally empty shells. Outspokenness was sufficient to gain prominence under Suharto, but it alone is inadequate when competing for political weight against the large network of small and medium capitalists, local dignitaries, Islamic leaders and landowners who run the existing big parties.

Consistent supporters of middle-class liberalism have no real party to turn to. The closest is PAN, but many are suspicious of Rais, who is a very recent convert to liberalism. Previously he was infamous for his Islamic sectarianism and closeness to B.J. Habibie during the Suharto period. Many of the liberals now run the several foreign-funded election monitoring organisations.

The more militant student liberals, firmly opposed to the authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism of the Habibie government but oblivious or hostile to working-class politics, have decided to boycott the elections. However, in recent weeks the boycott movement has lost steam as the illusion has spread among the mass of people that the elections will reduce their misery.

Revolutionary democracy

The People's Democratic Party (PRD) is the one party participating in the elections that has consistently criticised the election process as undemocratic, and that unconditionally calls for the total abolition of the political role of the armed forces.

The PRD has stressed repeatedly that its election campaign is primarily aimed at reaching out to more people to win them to a more radical understanding of their problems. It is standing only 31 candidates for the national parliament, but they have already caused controversy.

The PRD's candidates include imprisoned PRD chairperson Budiman Sujatmiko and labour leader Dita Sari, as well as three PRD activists who were kidnapped in early 1998 and are still missing. Whether the last three will be allowed as candidates is still being debated.

The PRD does not have the resources to compete for votes with the wealthy parties or those appealing to traditional Muslim or Sukarnoist constituencies, but PRD activists say that the party membership has increased 10-fold since the beginning of the year.

While campaigning, the PRD has not lessened its emphasis on strengthening grassroots political power by forging organisations for struggle. It played a leading role in the formation on May 14-16 of the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggles (FNPBI).

The PRD has also maintained its protest actions. Together with workers' groups, the PRD organised national workers' actions on April 6 and May Day.

On May 20, PRD activists, scores of students, 1800 workers from two factories in the impoverished area of Kapok in north Jakarta and members of the Workers Committee for Reform Action, Students and People's Committee for Democracy and University of Indonesia Extended Family protested against the disappearance of three worker activists a few days earlier.

The demonstrators were attacked by the military, who arrested at least 30 people and injured hundreds of others. Among those arrested was Ilham Syah, elected on May 16 as secretary-general of the FNPBI.>41559MS>n255D>