Indonesia: Activists debate electoral tactic

Dita Sari will stand in the 2009 election

Indonesia: Tracing a path towards parliament

By Kelik Ismunanto

November 29, 2008 -- After such a long period of time in a vacuum, uncertain of how to respond to changes caused by neoliberal economic policies, little by little, democracy movement activists have been able to wrest back the political podium.

In the last few months, several national television stations provided a political stage for activists such as Dita Sari, Budiman Sujatmiko, Pius Lustrilanang and other young activists who are contesting the 2009 elections, to explain their reasons for choosing the parliamentary tactic.

Among young activists, there are opinions in favour and against this tactic.

Many activists have longed to fill the available political stage with their fresh ideas and concepts as a solution to the Indonesian nation’s problems. This longing has found a place to rest with the candidature of several activists.

Electoral tactic

The candidature of several activists was debated on TV screens. These include Dita, a leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), under the banner of the Star Reform Party (PBR), as well as Budiman via the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and Pius through Gerindra.

Cynicism and mockery at the positions taken by Dita, Budiman and Pius, levelled by ex-comrades from the student movement of the 1990s, questions the effectiveness of the parliamentary tactic taken by [those]  attempting to propel forward a mass popular movement — to a movement of the mass of people who are more and more thrown on the scrapheap of poverty.

The fact that today Indonesians are deprived of more and more of their basic rights as citizens and that the state is completely abrogating its duties to guarantee the welfare of the people helps to create cynicism among activists towards the state and its institutions such as parliament.

This is also because of past experience, where activists have entered parliament and promptly forgotten what they were fighting for, as if a line has been drawn between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary movements, that somehow these two movements are fundamentally opposed and separate.

This might be true based on recent experiences, but if we look back through history and the experiences of other nations, let’s say that of Malaysia, such an assumption or prejudice is wrong.

In Malaysia, the combination and synergy between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary movements were able to open up the democratic space that had been monopolised by the ruling party.


If we look back to the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, the democracy movement fragmented while the fake reformists were able to consolidate themselves.

Political elites and former bureaucrats in Suharto’s New Order regime were able to seize back the legal political space, for example through the setting up of new political parties or gaining other public positions.

Meanwhile, the democracy movement became more fragmented in various institutions, and activists became entrapped within the activities of each respective institution. Of course, part of the changes had to do with the fact that movement activists were getting older, with new challenges to face — such as having families to feed — and leaving behind the world of student politics.

Meanwhile the life of the people, who had been the driving force of the movement, was more and more destroyed by market economy policies implemented by successive post-Suharto governments.

The role of the state, which had in the past been able to ameliorate the effects of the global economy, is disappearing more and more. The role of providing regulation and protection that was still able to be performed by the Suharto regime began to be cast aside by policies forced on Indonesia by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Indonesia's natural resource wealth was more and more depleted thanks to the antics of the political elite and foreign corporations.

Farmers who sell on the open market scream at the kind of prices being paid for their products. Workers are facing a bleak future thanks to policies of outsourcing; the cost of education and health care rises and rises because of the withdrawal of subsidies.

These are recent problems that are growing acute, problems that didn’t taken on such massive dimensions under Suharto.

Ten years since the fall of Suharto and the height of the student reform movement, the movement has been at a loss in responding to sociological changes and consciousness of the masses that have been the result of the intensifying effects of the free market economy.

Activists have failed in formulating a concept of the basic problems confronting society today that could be the basis of a common platform. The parliamentary option chosen by some of the 1998 activists is a tactic aimed at a breakthrough to pierce the stagnation of the movement.

It has been shown that the important task of wresting back the people’s economic and social rights cannot be achieved simply through an extra-parliamentary movement. Parliament is the main edifice that needs to fortify the people against the ferocity of the free market.

To demarcate between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary roads is not the right solution for building the people’s movement.

As was explained by Dita Sari on television recently, the extra-parliamentary movement needs parliament to formalise the program they are struggling for.

Similarly, those who sit in parliament as genuine people’s representatives need those on the outside to pressure the entire parliament to act in the interests of the people, to respond to their needs.

A synergy between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary sections of the movement is of absolute necessity.

[This article was published in the Indonesia newspaper Solo Pos on October 27, 2008. It was translated by Vannessa Hearman for Green Left Weekly. Kelik Ismunanto is a PRD leader and a former 1990s student activist.]