I had not been in Indonesia long when a helpful Indonesian political scientist told me that there were three key factors in Indonesian political life: the left, the military and Islam.
This was in the early 1990s, and of course the left was nowhere to be seen.
The aftermath of the 30 September 1965 coup attempt – such it is called, although I prefer to see the whole process as a successful coup by Suharto – resulted in the destruction of Indonesia’s important leftist community.
The killing of some 500,000 people, many of them members or sympathizers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was enough to send this part of the political spectrum running for cover.
Many thousands more were thrown into detention, often without charges. Even after release, being stamped Eks-Tapol (former political prisoner) tainted a person, and his or her family, for ever more. Many avenues of employment, not least in government or the SOEs, were completely closed. Even the more moderate Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) was banned.
This destruction of the left saw Indonesia’s political landscape reduced to two separate hues – the military and Islam – although the initial definition of a three-legged spectrum seems in retrospect to be a little simplistic, and needs to be joined by another leg, the nationalist political factions, to complete the picture.
This nationalist group in fact rose to control the game through Golongan Karya, the organization of functional groups that became the political machine of the Suharto era and has now re-invented itself as the Golkar Party. In its initial form, Golkar represented an alliance of the bureaucracy, business and the military, although the latter seldom played a major overt role within the group’s politics.
Islam remained intact and possibly stronger without the atheistic leanings of the PKI to bother society, even though it had its own problems with the Suharto regime. The military remained the glue that kept society together.
What remained of the left – and many of its real adherents remained off the political map – grouped in human rights organizations and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), later to become the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) once it freed itself of its Suharto-era stooges.
With the exception of some human rights groups such as the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (LBH), those in refuge from attack by an aggressive right wing had little interest in backing the specific political demands of the remaining left-wingers. Being a leftist was taboo and anyone who was identified as such could expect to live only by hanging on desperately at the fringes.
Indonesia, quite naturally, changed as Suharto grew older and as he continued to fail to acknowledge growing discontent with the antics of his children and cronies in the world of business. Criticism visibly mounted and proved to be more difficult to force back into the box, despite the continuing domination of society by the intelligence apparatus.
Nevertheless it was a surprise to be at the LBH offices on Jl. Diponegoro on 22 July, 1996 to hear the declaration of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD). The language of its manifesto reflected a deep sympathy with the communist cause, couched in the jargon of leftist orthodoxy.
The manifesto also made it very clear that it saw the Suharto regime as having no legitimacy. “After 30 years, eight months and 22 days of the New Order regime, its control of the economy, politics and culture is unacceptable and cannot be defended by the people of Indonesia,” the manifesto stated.
Naturally enough, there was a rapid reaction from the authorities and the founders of PRD were bundled off to jail. Today, some of them are back in the system. Budiman Sudjatmiko is a member of the House of Representatives from PDI-P, Dita Indah Sari is an advisor to the manpower and transmigration minister.
More important than this handful of leftist politicians is the emergence of genuine worker unity. In recent weeks, thousands of workers have turned out on the streets in Jakarta and its satellite cities and in Batam in Riau Islands to demand improved wages. In many cases they have been successful, winning additional increases to the minimum regional wage.
Further, widespread concern over the abuse of weak title to land in a number of areas in the country, together with the enlistment of the police to serve as the enforcers of private companies, has raised widespread concern over injustice in the country.
All of this appears to be signaling a ripe climate for the return of the left to Indonesian politics. Potential leaders already exist: Budiman was very quick to move for a parliamentary inquiry into a wave of continuing protests over the Agrarian Law, seen by many as opening the door to land grabs.
Some Indonesians will inevitably see this as a threat to stability. Indonesian Islam has always been diametrically opposed to ‘godless’ leftist ideology, so a new generation of left leaders would do well to forget the dogma of Marxism-Leninism. The military, that other leg of institutional Indonesia, may have more trouble in coping with the rise of a new left wing if it means more challenges to authority.
Stability is, of course, the main foundation of good business and a sound economy. Yet is stability genuine if it is itself based on inequity? Some consider that inequity is so marked that 0.2% of the population – 48,000 people – controls some 57% of the country’s assets. While it is impossible to check the accuracy of such a claim, the imbalance is enormous.
Such an imbalance cannot have been achieved without the connivance – as Syamsuddin Haris of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences put it in a recent controversial article, Negara Predator (The Predator State) – of politicians, officials and the security authorities to dupe or force the general public into the theft of their resources.
Isn’t it then logical that a left wing should emerge to complete the ‘legs’ of the Indonesian political chair? Increases in urbanization and the industrialization of the workforce will inevitably produce a different mindset from that of isolated farmers.
The experience of the sweet taste of success in forcing through rises in the regional minimum wage standards in Jakarta, Batam and beyond will make workers conscious that they can be more outspoken and more successful. For the time being, they remain focused solely on bread-and-butter issues such as wages and conditions, and have yet to branch out into wider issues. This has seen attempts to politicize the movement through groupings such as Muchtar Pakpahan’s Partai Buruh (Workers’ Party) fail miserably at Reform Era elections.
This may change, and while it is unlikely that the left will ever come to dominate Indonesian politics, it could gain enough traction to be able to influence the wording of legislation to make the country more labor-friendly and pro-poor.
This could create a more inclusive and possibly more equitable society. The military should drop its own suspicion of the left and see it as a genuine representative of a class which has been neglected up and until now.
It, and other Indonesians, should wake up to the reality that four legs, in politics as in chairs and tables, are more stable than just three.