Indonesia: Left party relaunched to challenge elite

March 12, 2010

Indonesian socialist group, the People's Democratic Party (PRD), made an historic decision to relaunch itself as an open party at its seventh congress on March 1-3.

The PRD was first launched in 1996 under the Suharto dictatorship. It faced severe repression, with many of its leaders jailed. It was part of the mass uprising in 1998 that overthrew Suharto.

Newly elected PRD general-secretary Gede Sandra told Green Left Weekly: "For the last decade-and-a-half we have organised both above and below ground because of repression.

"But since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship there has been more democratic space and we need to maximise the opportunity this presents to build our party."

The party's socialist politics will be expressed within the five principles laid out by Indonesia's first post-independence President Sukarno in a June 1, 1945, speech on "Pancasila" (nationalism, internationalism, democracy, socialism and belief in god).

The congress resolved to work to build mass support through mass organisations and building fronts. It also decided to campaign in the coming local elections and in the 2014 general elections.

The congress also decided that any front entered into — or any electoral cooperation with other organisations — "must be based on a consideration of both the needs of the struggle and programmatic fitness".

It resolved that if the 2014 election campaign is carried out through other political parties, "the main goal must remain [PRD] party-building".

This decision followed a vigorous debate. In the end, a large majority supported the perspective to relaunch and build the PRD.

The strongest support for this perspective came from activists in the mass worker, peasant and urban poor organisations, and from younger PRD activists.

Desi Arisanti, the secretary general of the National Front for Labour Struggle (FNPBI), welcomed the shift to an "open, mass-based cadre party". She was pleased that "while there was lots of debate, there remained a strong cohesion between the cadres and the leadership of the party — unlike some previous PRD congresses".

The PRD's biggest mass base is among the urban poor, the fastest growing sector of the population. It is estimated that some 70% of all working people are now in the so-called informal sector.

Marlo Sitompul, chairperson of the Urban Poor Union of Indonesia (SRMI), which has a base of more than 30,000, also welcomed the decision to build the PRD as an open party.

GLW spoke to PRD member and Berdikari Online editor Rudi Hartonoabout the meaning of the Congress decisions.

* * *

What were the most important decisions made by the congress?

The most important thing was the unanimous spirit in the congress to build the party and make it broad and mass-based. This was achieved through the decision to make the PRD an open party, while not abandoning the aim of building a mass cadre party.

This is very different to our previous tradition as a party that was mobilised by a small revolutionary elite — in the name of building an orthodox vanguard party.

Most importantly, the congress was a success in helping us move to an appropriate organisational form for the Indonesian context and today's situation.

There is also the willingness of our cadre to recognise and study the ideas of Bung Karno (Sukarno), a leading figure in Indonesia's national liberation struggle.

We have raised Bung Karno's idea of pancasila as the principle of the party — which we hope will broaden our party's influence among the masses. We interpret pancasila in the original form used by Bung Karno — not the distorted version used by [Suharto's] New Order regime.

The PRD was unable to participate in the 2009 elections under the banner of its electoral front Papernas because of restrictive electoral laws. It ran most of its 300 candidates under the banner of the Star Reform Party (PBR). What's your evaluation of your party's experiences in the 2009 general elections?

The election was an important experiment to help our leading activists understand the objective situation facing our people. The election gave our cadres the opportunity to go out to the people, putting them in direct contact with voters, so they can understand their general level of [political] awareness.

This was a valuable experience that also influenced the development of the party's perspectives.

In addition, the experience also introduced us to the new ground of struggle of bourgeois democracy. We know the weaknesses and limitations of this system, allowing us to act in the interests of our movement within the bourgeois arena. What achievements can we speak of?

We only managed to put one PRD activist and one sympathiser into the local parliament [in Aceh], but we had good engagement with people. If previously understanding of the issue of neoliberalism was limited to a handful of activists and intellectuals, now almost everyone is familiar with it.

Even the political elite is forced to use anti-neoliberal rhetoric against their political opponents! This is a victory in the ideological discourse, if not yet political victory. Our task is to advance to a political victory.

What are the challenges of having to enter other parties in order to participate in elections?

It will be hard for us to participate in the 2014 general election through our own political vehicle. The only remaining option is for us to work electorally with other parties.

With our platform of "national sovereignty" and anti-neoliberalism, there is room for cooperation with other parties with nationalist platforms.

The framework of our cooperation has to be pragmatic enough for us to be able to participate in the 2014 general elections, but it also has to strategically advance the struggle to change the balance of power in the country.

We think key to a victory for the anti-neoliberal movement in Indonesia will be broad unity between all the sectors that have been victims of neoliberalism, including elements of Indonesian capitalists.

The key task of our congress was to identify the main enemy (neoliberalism) and work out who are our potential allies (such as nationalists) and how to neutralise the vacillating elements.

How important is it for the poor, the workers and the peasants to have a party independent of the parties of the elite?

We believe that political victory can only be achieved with a party or political force based on an independent people's movement.

The PRD congress emphasised the importance of building a true party of the exploited in Indonesia. And we will do this in parallel with building joint responses to the national political situation.

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