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Indonesia: Sowing illusions of revolutionary change through the ballot box

Zely Ariane - February 19, 2009

[The following was written in response to an article by Kelik Ismunanto titled "Indonesia: Tracing a path towards parliament", which appeared in the December 3 issue of Green Left Weekly. Translated by James Balowski.]

Reasons for the retreat of the movement

Simply stating that the people's movement in Indonesia is experiencing a period of stagnation, so a "political breakthrough" is required through the parliamentary road, is irresponsible, ahistorical and opportunist. It would be more honest just to concede that this parliamentary road is actually through the political parties left over from Suharto's New Order regime and the fake reformists. This is because there are the only two groupings of parties that are currently able to contest the 2009 legislative and presidential elections – there is no third grouping.

It is this kind of parliamentarist tactic that is being undertaken by the People's Democratic Party (PRD) and it's former electoral vehicle the National Liberation Party of Unity (Papernas) – subordinating themselves under the Star Reform Party (PBR), one of the fake reformist parties. Although not significant, it is tactics such this that are contributing to the current retreat of the movement in Indonesia.

The formation of Papernas as a political party with an alternative program, and the simultaneous creation of a united alternative political force – although still artificial because it had yet to develop a broader base of support – was the correct step. Through mass mobilisations, it had a chance to gain the support of the ordinary people, and even more so elements of the people's movement, but only if the struggle against the oppression faced by the people was steadily intensified.

The evidence. The considerable level of solidarity shown towards Papernas. This solidarity however did not provide a material basis for it to develop into a political movement because Papernas chose to retreat from the struggle and hide itself behind the tactic of a "coalition" – which was opportunistically pursued for the sake of becoming a contestant in the 2009 elections. This is one of the aspects that differentiates Papernas from the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM).

And the result was that all of its revolutionary political principles were dropped. Through the justification of the tactic of the "united front" or a "coalition", they wholeheartedly plunged themselves in the parliamentary arena because as cited by Ismunanto, "those who sit in parliament are the genuine people's representatives" (Ismunanto should have articulated this as becoming "the representatives of the fake reformist parties"). In order for this to be effective, they needed "those on the outside to pressure the entire parliament to act in the interests of the people, to respond to their needs" because "parliament is the main edifice that needs to fortify the people against the ferocity of the free market".

Is this a manipulation, or is their understanding of the formulation of the two tactics in the democratic revolution really as shallow as that? It could be both. And is it true that the parliament is the "main edifice?" of revolutionary struggle?

Unfortunately, these kinds of tactics have also been adopted by many other figures and former people's movement and non-government organisation (NGO) activists. Some of them – those who are not leftists – hold to the idealistic view that working inside these parties is the most sensible form of struggle at present. The majority however, are largely motivated by opportunism and simply furthering their carriers.

The issue however, is not simply one of opposing or supporting the parliamentarist tactic, because we can of course accept this at certain times and under the right conditions. The PRD and Papernas however, simply respond with the vulgar accusation that those who refuse subordinating themselves within the fake reformist parties (or even the parties left over from the New Order regime) are sectarian, ultra-left and oppose the parliamentarist tactic in principle.

Parliamentary opportunism

Ismunanto also deplores the "lack of synergy" between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary sections of the movement. This arises out of the misguided idea that the majority of the Indonesian left is allergic to the parliamentary tactic. This is simply not the case. Not supporting the parliamentarist politics ala Dita Indah Sari (now running as a legislative candidate for the PBR), former PRD chairperson Budiman Sudjatmiko (a candidate for former President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) and former activist Pius Lustrilanang (who has joined the Gerindra Party headed by Suharto's former sun-in-law retired General Prabowo Subianto) is in fact a manifestation of the movement's mistrust in these rotten political parties, which in fact, and objectively, is in accordance with feelings of most ordinary Indonesians themselves.

Yeni Rosa Damayanti – an ex-comrade of Sari, Sudjatmiko and their friends from the student movement of the 1990s – in a television debate criticized Sari and Sudjatmiko saying something along the lines of: "Where is the PRD now? Why aren't you still fighting and continuing with the PRD any more? Why the PBR (speaking to Sari)? Why can't Budiman do a thing when faced with Megawati?"

The January 2009 issue of the monthly newspaper Pembebasan (Liberation), published by the Political Committee of the Poor-Peoples Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD), carried an article tilted "The Politics of the Poor", which stated:

"Elections are one of the political variables in working out the strategy and tactics of revolutionary struggle, and electoral coalitions are just one of these tactical elements. But a coalition with whom? The understanding of a coalition that should be propagandised is: we can attack our mutual enemies, namely the colonial domination of foreign capital, the remnants of the New Order (primarily the Golkar Party), the military, and the fake reformist groups, who represent a danger that is real and urgent... it is quite reasonable in a coalition, and not a problem if only a minimal program can be accepted by our allies, but such a minimum program is not in contradiction with or counter-productive to our maximum or real program... we can freely, and should without out our hands being tied, endeavour (at every opportunity) to propagandise our real program. It is because of this therefore, that a coalition with the PBR is unacceptable!"

And, in reality, the PRD and Papernas are not part of a coalition, but rather have liquidated themselves into the PBR – although this has never been conceded by the PRD or Papernas leadership. The evidence being, the PRD and Papernas have blunted their own political tool and formed a political vehicle that is totally new. Papernas no longer appears publicly, and except through its website, there is no visible activity or expression of its politics whatsoever. And just like Papernas, in de facto terms the PRD has also been dissolved – it does not issue any statements or even have a website. All of its political assets, including the mass organisations that supported Papernas, are increasingly focused on the job of electoral victory with a minimalist propaganda.

In order to enliven the "extra-parliamentary' platform a new grouping called SPARTAN (Volunteers of the People's Struggle for the Liberation of the Motherland) has been formed as a new political vehicle, which is far more modest in programmatic terms than Papernas and only has a united national platform to fight against foreign capital (bourgeois-nationalist) – far more modest even that the platform adopted by the Indonesian nationalist movement in the early 20th Century.

In organisational terms, they have fragmented their forces into various parliamentary and exclusive electoral avenues, as part of their opportunistic parliamentarist game plan. Almost all of the PRD and Papernas's activists have become PBR legislative candidates in electoral districts where the PBR is running, but where in the 2004 legislative elections the PBR were weak or failed to obtain a single seat. Conversely, in electoral districts where the PBR is strong, the have to make way for the PBR or have not been allowed to become candidates for the party.

Other PRD and Papernas activists who have not become PBR legislative candidates can be divided into three or four groups that collaborate with each other: (a) those working to ensure the victory of Sultan Hamengkubuwono (Golkar Party) as a presidential candidate under a campaign election team referred to as the Merti Nusantara (Ismunanto is part of this group); (b) those nominating themselves as candidate Regional House of Representative members though independent channels; (c) those facilitating a propaganda platform for former economics minister Rizal Ramli as the presidential candidate for the PBR; and (d) those who have become legislative candidates for parties other than the PBR.

What do they hope to achieve through tactics such as this. What kind of united tactical front do they hope to pursue? Are they just aiming to provide "the broadest possible propaganda to the people": saying on the one hand that the PBR is the people's party of choice in the 2009 elections, but on the other hand, wanting to nominate Rizal Ramli or Sultan Hamengkubuwono, or even Prabowo Subianto (responsible for the abduction of PRD activists in 1997-1998) as their "alternative" president, while SPARTAN represents "those on the outside to pressure the entire parliament to act in the interests of the people, to respond to their needs"?

From what angle can these kind of tactics create the so called the combination and synergy between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary movements? Is this not all just aimed at confusing the people – by saying that the remnants of the New Order (and even the abductors, the human rights violators) and the fake reformists have changed and become "progressive" (or "religious-socialist" as claimed by the PBR)? Or is this just a tactic to fool the people, in the sense that the people must divide or split their vote among the contestants? Or is it simply the stupid tactic that it appears to be?

Even worse than this, the PRD and Papernas have blunted their mass mobilisations and mass radicalisation merely for the sake of a minimum program. No longer are there any significant actions taking up Papernas's minimal program of Tripanji (Three Banners): Repudiating the foreign debt, nationalising the mining industry and building the national industry for the welfare of the people.

None of these political tactics can pretend to seek justification under Marxist (revolutionary) theory. Perhaps it would be appropriate to cite Leon Trotsky on the characteristics of such centrist groups:

  • In the sphere of theory centrism is impressive and eclectic. It shelters itself as much as possible from obligations in the matter of theory and is inclined (in words) to give preference to "revolutionary practice" over theory; without understanding that only Marxist theory can give to practice a revolutionary direction.
  • The centrist, never sure of his position and his methods, regards with detestation the revolutionary principle: State that which is; it inclines to substituting, in the place of political principles, personal combinations and petty organizational diplomacy.
  • The centrist swears by the policy of the united front as he empties it of its revolutionary content and transforms it from a tactical method into a highest principle.
  • Under the pressure of circumstances the eclectic centrist is capable of accepting even extreme conclusions but only to repudiate them later indeed.

What is currently being undertaken by the PRD and Papernas leadership within the PBR is not a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary tactics, but rather it is channeling the people's desire for change through the ballot box in the 2009 elections, because, as Ismunanto so explicitly states, "parliament is the main edifice that is needed to fortify the people against the ferocity of the free market".

[Zely Ariane is the national spokesperson for the Political Committee of the Poor-Peoples Democratic Party and a former leading member of the PRD and Papernas. The original title of the article was "A strategic error: Channeling the people's desire for change just for the sake of the ballot".]