Max Lane – The small but vocal Partai Buruh (PB), a newcomer to Indonesian politics, could disrupt the 2024 elections if its questioning of the status quo succeeds. For now, the odds remain low.
Media reporting on Indonesia's new Labour Party (Partai Buruh, PB) has been quite extensive despite the PB being unproven electorally, never having stood candidates. PB has attracted interest because its pro-"welfare state" platform puts it at odds with all the other parties. Its proclaimed opposition is to the government's controversial Job Creation Law (or "Omnibus Law"), which has been criticised by most of Indonesia's civil society sector of NGOs, union and campaign groups, critical lobby groups and advocates. The PB has stated that it will neither support presidential candidates from parties which have supported the Law nor join any coalitions with such parties.
The process of establishing a workers' party began in 2021, after a period of earlier stagnation. Last December, PB was successfully verified to stand candidates for the next elections (with 16 other parties). Despite being divided along ideological and tactical lines, the prospect of a labour or workers' party coming out of civil society, including the trade unions, raised hopes of a new reforming force. Would the smothering unanimity of the status quo parties be finally broken?
The PB claims that it can, with the votes of the majority of Indonesia's organised working class of mostly factory workers, represent potentially close to 6 million votes. (Almost 206 million Indonesian voters will vote in 2024.) However, questions about this claim have been accentuated by the current manoeuvres around prospective presidential candidates and what happened during the 2023 May Day celebrations.
Several smaller unions, as well as the larger Congress of Indonesia Unions Alliance, KASBI, have stayed away from PB. This is a result of either their distrust of electoral politics in general or of the PB leadership, especially its chairman, Said Iqbal. Iqbal's political history includes standing as a candidate for the Islamist Justice and Welfare Party (PKS) and then, in 2014 and 2019, leading his union in support of the presidential candidacy of Prabowo Subianto. In 2014, Iqbal rejected criticisms of his support for Prabowo, who was seen by many as a human rights violator, by stating that "Human rights are not important to workers". There are also criticisms from former members who have started their own federation.
At this juncture, the leadership ranks are fractured. After the PB was formed, a former leader of Iqbal's union, the Indonesian Trade Union Confederation, KSPI, Obon Tabrani (elected to parliament as a Gerindra MP), was expelled from KSPI for refusing to change his party allegiance from Gerindra to the PB.
More ambiguity around the PB's ability to win all the organised workers' votes has arisen since the discussion of presidential candidates recently escalated. In an earlier national working group meeting of the PB, a list of four potential candidates that it might support emerged. These were the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle's (PDI-P) Ganjar Pranowo; Anies Baswedan – the nominee of the National Democrats (NasDem), the PKS and the Democratic Party (DP); Said Iqbal himself; and the liberal TV presenter, Najwah Shihab. However, the PB has also declared that it would not support any candidate who has supported the Job Creation Law, which theoretically rules out Ganjar, as the PDI-P was a key initiator of the Law. The situation regarding Anies Baswedan is more ambiguous. In the recent vote on legalising President Widodo's decree version of the Omnibus Law, Baswedan supporters, DP, and PKS voted against it although they had originally voted for it. NasDem however has always voted for the Omnibus Law.
PB, having no seats in the current parliament, cannot formally nominate anybody for the 2024 presidential election because of the existing rules on which political parties can nominate candidates. The PB therefore is lodging a judicial review with the Constitutional Court to abolish the existing threshold requirements of at least 20 per cent of parliamentary seat share or 25 per cent of national votes. What happens, however, if this judicial review does not change the rules, given that every party in parliament will likely advocate against it? Will the PB abstain from statements of support for any candidate or even call for Indonesians to abstain from voting?
Meanwhile, visible divisions among the unions are increasing doubts as to whose votes the PB can mobilise. First, one of the biggest confederations, the Confederation of All Indonesian Workers' Union, KSPSI, has already stated that it will strongly support Ganjar. The KSPSI, through the Indonesian Peoples Organisation (ORI), has been affiliated with PB, though not prominently. The KSPSI's stance further weakens PB's claim to represent all 6 million organised workers.
This ambiguity probably led to PB president Iqbal also joining the KSPSI for their meeting with Ganjar, although not for the press conference that followed this meeting. PB had claimed that presidential nominees would attend the 5,000 to 10,000-strong May Day Fiesta, without naming names, but on the day, only Iqbal was present. The differences within the labour movement were evident on May Day with several different May Day union mobilisations, including by those not affiliated with PB. The PB's fiesta was nevertheless the largest event.
If the PB succeeds against the odds in its judicial review, it may be able to nominate Iqbal as its presidential nominee. Otherwise, PB will have to choose between Ganjar Pranowo or Anies Baswedan – though not Prabowo – or not support any candidate for 2024.
It will remain the case that big sections of Indonesian civil society, including NGOs, unions, campaign committees, journalists, and intellectuals, will continue to watch PB closely for any signs that it may develop beyond its present marginal situation. Will its leadership cave in to accommodate the status quo party elites or campaign on the rejection of the existing parties and their policies? The former is probably more likely, given the temptations of politics, but the latter will make PB truly stand apart from the fray.
[Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of "An Introduction to the Politics of the Indonesian Union Movement" (ISEAS 2019) and the editor of "Continuity and Change after Indonesia's Reforms: Contributions to an Ongoing Assessment" (ISEAS 2019). His newest book is "Indonesia Out of Exile: How Pramoedya's Buru Quartet Killed a Dictatorship", (Penguin Random House, 2022).]