Radical party to enter Indonesian politics

January 11, 2007

Almost nine years since the fall of the dictator Suharto, one word continues to dominate discussions of the widespread social discontent in Indonesia: "fragmentation".

The mass movement that forced Suharto out of power, spearheaded by elements from the radical wing of the worker and student sectors, re-won mass action and political mobilisation as legitimate political activity after 33 years of enforced passivity under the policy of "floating mass". As a consequence, since 1998 when Suharto was ousted, social protest in the form of strikes, demonstrations, rallies and public meetings have become a daily phenomenon in Indonesia. However, they remain small and ad hoc, mostly only taking place at the site of grievance, unaffiliated to any political bloc and not part of any national political movement. There are hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of local ad hoc protest groups operating at any one time.

A new political initiative being carried out by the People's Democratic Party (PRD) is the formation of a new electoral party, the National Liberation Party of Unity (Papernas). This has evolved over the last year as a response to the persistence of active social protest, as an attempt to place the most radical perspective based within this sector of social protest into the national political arena.

Initially, the idea of a united party for national liberation was connected to an attempt to form a united front of various left political blocs that have emerged in Indonesia over the last 10 years. The most solid of these, and the one with the highest political profile, is the PRD itself. But other left political blocs have also developed. These include one based on the National Students Front (FMN) and the peasant organising group called Agra, which has a strategic orientation based on its perspective that peasants are the main radical force in the country.

Another political bloc is the Working People's Association (PRP), a looser organisation, but which in many respects has a similar opposition to neoliberal globalisation as the PRD. There is also the environmental organisation WAHLI, affiliated internationally to the Friends of the Earth. WAHLI has also spoken often about forming a radical Green Party.

United front

In early 2006 there were a series of meetings aimed at trying to organise a unity conference, based around a minimum program, which might bring these forces together in a broad left party. According to Agus Jabo, the secretary-general of the PRD, the PRD itself was proposing that the blocs come together to form a united front that could bring an anti-imperialist campaigning perspective to the 2009 elections. "In our 2004 Congress", Jabo told Green Left Weekly, "we assessed that all these political blocs shared a similar critique of imperialist domination and that there was therefore grounds for a common anti-imperialist platform".

"There is agreement on demands such as the nationalisation of the oil and gas industry and on the cancellation of Indonesia's foreign debt. So we talked with the other groups and proposed a conference of all groups. But it didn't happen."

It soon became clear, said Jabo, that differences remain over methods of struggle. Some considered that participating in electoral politics was a sell-out, others thought that the most important united fronts to build were those based purely in one sector or around immediate sectoral demands, such as reforms to labour laws.

"The idea that Papernas could be based on this kind of united front was revealed as unrealistic. However, the PRD decided to go ahead in any case with the Papernas project, no longer orienting to unity of these political blocs as its basis, but looking instead to trying to gather together a combination of the PRD's own long-term but unorganised contacts, along with trying also to gather parts of the many fragments of active social discontent that exist at the local level, but that are not connected to any political bloc or current."

The chairperson of the preparatory committee of Papernas, Domingus Octavus, explained that the people being recruited to Papernas comprise two basic groups. "Our 300 cadre have been travelling all around the country seeking out past contacts of the PRD, people who worked with us during the struggle against Suharto or since then. Our cadre have talked to them about the program that we are proposing for Papernas and tried to convince them that a new party able to participate in the elections with a radical program is necessary. The second component is activists or groups of activists with whom we have worked together in campaigns at the local level and who are not affiliated to any political or ideological current but who are open to a radical program."

Jabo explained that the PRD itself has cadre in 25 towns and rural sub-provinces throughout Indonesia, but that its cadres had been able to organise Papernas branches in around 100 towns and sub-provinces as of December 2006. "This will not be enough to enable Papernas to achieve registration to participate in the elections. We will need 250 such branches based in at least two-thirds of the country's provinces. However the widespread, even if very fragmented, discontent and protest activity at the local level means that there is potential to expand to another hundred or more towns or village areas."

Octavus explained that to date, the new Papernas branches that the PRD cadres had been able to organise were based on recruiting peasants who had been active at one time or another in resisting either the Suharto regime or the neoliberal policies of Indonesia's subsequent regimes. Urban-based branches were in the minority, said Domingus.
He also explained that they were close to exhausting the potential for recruiting past contacts and the local activist groups with whom they had worked in the past. "To expand to another hundred towns or village areas means we will need to draw towards us individuals or groups with whom we have had no contact so far."

A year of campaigning

Octavus continued: "After the Papernas congress, to be held January 18-22, we will be concentrating on more open political campaigning in support of our key demands: the nationalisation of the oil and gas industries and the cancellation of the foreign debt, and using the money that becomes available to provide free education and health care to the people. More public mobilisations, either as street protest actions or indoor rallies, will be the backbone of our campaigning."

Jabo emphasised that "2007 must be a year of all-out campaigning for us. In the last period we have been looking inward, concentrating on building up the structures that we need to have to obtain electoral registration. But we can't continue this process as purely an internal effort, we must take our politics outwards. There is enormous dissatisfaction with all the existing parties, which offer no solution to the people's sufferings."

The Papernas congress will formalise the structures that have been built up over the last year and elect a national leadership. It will represent the beginning of the next phase of trying to raise the new party's profile and campaign for the program that the congress will adopt.

In the lead-up to the congress, Papernas will also try to intervene in the national political scene. It will be announcing its views on possible presidential candidates that it might be willing to support in 2009. It will announce four criteria to be used in evaluating any presidential candidate: a candidate must be free of any taint of corruption; must have pursued a consistent pro-people political perspective; must support a strategy of achieving economic independence; and must be a new candidate, not somebody drawn from the old slate of elite politicians hoping to be president.

Papernas is proposing to put forward five names as an indication of the kind of people it will be willing to support. Among the five is Kwik Kian Gie, an Indonesian-Chinese economist who was a member of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri's cabinet, but one who was marginalised because of his outspoken criticism of the International Monetary Fund and the government's subservience to international financial agencies. Papernas will also include Dita Sari in the list. Sari is the chairperson of the PRD and has a high profile as a labour leader who fought against the Suharto dictatorship and against neoliberal globalisation.

The nationalist economist Rizal Ramli is also on the list, along with the political commentator and pro-democracy intellectual Sukardi Rinakit. The final person is Hasyim Wahid, a brother of former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who has a reputation for consistently defending human rights.

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