Indonesia: People's Democratic Party relaunched as `open, mass-based cadre party'

PRD members at the January 28, 2010, Jakarta rally to protest the first 100 days of the  presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Photo by Ulfa Ilyas.

By Peter Boyle

March 11, 2010 -- An historic decision to relaunch itself as an open party was made at the seventh congress of the People's Democratic Party (PRD) of Indonesia on March 1-3. The party's socialist politics will be expressed within the five principles laid out by Indonesia's first President Sukarno's June 1, 1945, speech on “Pancasila” (nationalism, internationalism, democracy, socialism and belief in god).

“For the last decade and a half we have organised both above and below ground because of repression”, the new Secretary-General of the PRD, Gede Sandra, explained to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal and Green Left Weekly. “But since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship there has been more democratic space and we need to maximise the opportunities this presents to build our party.”

The congress resolved to do this through:

  1. Building constituencies, voter bases and mass support through mass organisations, through building fronts and other methods; and by
  2. Conducting an electoral struggle in the coming local elections and in the 2014 general elections using tactics of logistical and territorial concentration.

The PRD congress also decided that any front entered into –- or electoral cooperation with other organisations -– “must be based on a consideration of both the needs of the struggle and programmatic fitness”. Further, it resolved that if the 2014 intervention is carried out through other political parties, “the main goal must remain party building”.

This decision followed a vigorous debate at the congress, but in the end, a large majority supported the perspective to relaunch and build the PRD. The strongest support for this perspective came from the activists in the mass workers, peasants and urban poor organisations and from the younger cadres.

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 in some previous PRD congresses”.

Today, 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, the general 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.

Outgoing PRD secretary general, Harris Sitorus, said that it was important that cadre from the younger generation take up more leadership in the party. However, there was also leadership continuity as Agus ``Jabo'' Priyono was re-elected chairperson of the National Presidium.

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Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly spoke to PRD member Rudi Hartono, the editor of Berdikari Online, an internet publication associated with the PRD, about the meaning of the PRD's seventh congress decisions.

In your opinion, as editor of Berdikari Online, what were the most important decisions made by the seventh congress of the PRD?

Rudi Hartono: 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 an important point in the decision to make the PRD an open party while not abandoning the line 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 for our cadre to move to an appropriate organisational form for the Indonesian context and the concrete situation today.

Another new thing is the willingness of our cadre to recognise and study the ideas of Bung Karno [Sukarno], a leading figure in the national liberation of our country. We feel that the ideas of Bung Karno were even more advanced than those of the inspiring figures of Latin American liberation, such as Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar or Emiliano Zapata.

We have raised Bung Karno's idea of Pancasila, as the principle of the party -– a new principle which we hope will broaden and expand our propaganda work and our party's influence among the masses. We interpret Pancasila in the original form by Bung Karno, not the distorted version used by [former dictator Suharto's] New Order regime.

The PRD was unable to participate in the 2009 elections in its own right through the electoral front [Papernas, National Liberation Party of Unity] because of restrictive electoral laws and violent disruption by right-wing groups, so 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?

For me, the election was an important laboratory experiment especially to help our leading cadre understand the objective and concrete situation of our people. Imagine, the election gave us the opportunity to take our cadre down to the people, putting them in direct contact with voters, so they 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 this bourgeois arena.

What achievements can we speak of? We only managed to put one cadre and one sympathisr into the local parliament [in Aceh], but we had a taste of a victorious discourse. That is, if previously understanding of the issue of neoliberalism was limited to a handful of activists and intellectuals, now almost everyone is familiar with neoliberalism. Even the political elite is forced to use antineoliberal 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?

First, we have concluded that in the political situation in Indonesia right now, it will be hard for us to participate in the next (2014) general election through our own political vehicle. So the only remaining option is for us to work electorally with other parties, bourgeois parties. With our platform of “national sovereignty” and anti-neoliberalism, there is room for cooperation with other parties with nationalist platforms.

Thus, 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, a key victory for the anti-neoliberal movement in Indonesia will be a broad unity between all the sectors that have been victims of neoliberalism, including elements of the national capitalists. The principle task of our congress was to identify the principle enemy (neoliberalism) and work out who are our potential allies (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 still believe that final political victory can only be achieved with a party or political force of an independent people's movement.

The PRD congress, has emphasised the importance of building the party as a true party of the exploited in Indonesia. And we will do this in parallel with building (broader) joint responses to electoral politics and the national political situation. The main emphasis of our future work is to enlarge the membership of the PRD and expand our branches and party structures throughout Indonesia, and then expand the mass organisations to build the party.

[Peter Boyle is national convenor of the Socialist Alliance of Australia. He attended the PRD's seventh national congress as an observer.]