A challenge from below? Social movements against oligarchy

A challenge from below? Social movements against oligarchy

February 18, 2016

The idea that post-Soeharto Indonesia is an oligarchic democracy is now a well-established thesis. Scholars such as Jeffrey Winters(link is external), Richard Robison and Vedi Hadiz(link is external) argue that, despite the reforms of the past 18 years, super-wealthy elites and their cronies have maintained political and economic dominance, and Indonesian democracy has suffered as a result. Rising inequality, a new wave of land grabs, urban evictions, and repressive policies cracking down on protests are cited as just a few of many indications of the continuation of oligarchic rule in democratic Indonesia.

Other scholars have criticised or added nuance to this thesis(link is external), suggesting that this now dominant understanding of democratic change in Indonesia does not pay sufficient attention to popular agency. Ed Aspinall, for example, has detailed the ways in which the lower classes have had significant policy influence in post-Soeharto Indonesia(link is external).

Another emerging “attempt from below” to challenge the dominance of oligarchs is the Confederation of Indonesian People’s Movements (KPRI(link is external)), an alliance of social movements and unions across different sectors, representing workers, peasants, fishermen, indigenous peoples, and women. Several leading social movements have participated in the KPRI(link is external), including the Association of Indonesian Women’s Unions (Hapsari), the Federation of Indonesian Fishermen’s Unions (FSNN), the Indonesian Workers Union (KBI), the Union of Indonesian Peasants Movements (P3I), the Indigenous Peoples Movement (Gema) and the Federation of Indonesian Workers and Labourers Union (FSPBI).

KPRI started out as a nongovernmental organisation called Pergerakan (Movement), or the People-Centred Advocacy Organisation for Social Justice. At its third national congress in Bandung in 2011(link is external), Pergerakan made the decision to transform into KPRI, and it is now making preparations to participate in elections as a political party.

While gaining public office will be a herculean task, it is not impossible. One of the reasons that popular agency is often overlooked by oligarchy theorists is the fragmented nature of working-class movements(link is external). The experience of KPRI so far – despite its many challenges – is an example of effective movement building. KPRI has been able to establish and maintain a multi-sectoral, cross-class alliance of various social movements. This in itself is a tremendous achievement, considering that different social forces often have conflicting policy preferences, and that can inhibit the formation of a broad and inclusive movement. Urban workers, for example, might support cheap price policies for basic foods, while the rural peasants who produce these agricultural commodities might argue for the opposite (despite evidence suggesting that rural producers are often net consumers of basic commodities like rice(link is external)).

In order to overcome these common collective action problems, social movements must focus not just on building and maintaining their organisation but also on tackling the pressing political and economic problems of the day. Yes, fiery political speeches are needed, but concrete policy proposals are needed even more. KPRI leaders recognise this. The confederation has attempted to devise an alternative policy framework with a clear anti-neoliberal, leftist orientation on major policy issues.

I saw these efforts in action at three KPRI conferences over the past five months. At regional conferences in Banten and Jakarta, for example, discussions were held on a number of specific national and local political issues. These discussions aimed to help the confederation formulate a cohesive national strategy, as well as detailed local strategies tailored to local conditions and concerns.

At the fourth national congress in Jakarta(link is external) last month, these national policies were beginning to take shape. One of the topics discussed in considerable detail was the notion of transformative social protection.(link is external) KPRI believes that the government has transferred its responsibility for providing national health insurance to the market, in the form of the Social Security Agency (BPJS). Transformative social protection argues for the de-commodification of social protection policy to make it more inclusive, extending coverage to as many marginalised groups as possible, including workers in the informal sector, such as rural peasants, fishermen, indigenous peoples, and the urban poor. The government does, in fact, alreadysubsidise premiums for 86.4 million Indonesians(link is external), including people working in the informal sector, and plans to expand subsidies to cover 92.4 million Indonesians in 2016. But KPRI argues social protection does not go far enough, and must be extended to cover public transportation, cheap housing and reproductive health care.

Further articulating strategies such as these will be important as KPRI prepares to contest the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017 and the national presidential and legislative elections in 2019. While KPRI has slim odds of actually securing office for any of its members, actively participating in these elections will expose the KPRI and its constituent organisations to a qualitatively different political experience. This, in turn, will better prepare them for the challenges and responsibilities that come with participating in politics long term.

Needless to say, the spectre of political failure still haunts(link is external). At least as far back as 2009 there were attempts by the left to enter politics, such as through the failed National Liberation Party of Unity (Papernas). Other labour activists have joined or made political contracts with existing political parties. Failure to develop a broad base of support and the high financial costs of running for office have played a role in previous unsuccessful attempts. KPRI believes it has reason to be optimistic, however, because of its organic efforts to unify diverse social movements with solid bases. Further, it also maintains an inclusive leftist platform, aiming to avoid the sectarianism that pervades leftist organisations.

Early attempts by the left to move into politics were highly contentious among activists. It remains to be seen how the Indonesian activist landscape will respond to KPRI’s foray into politics. Another question that KPRI needs to address is its relationship with other movements and unions outside the confederation. While KPRI has so far been able to maintain internal solidity, the social forces represented in the confederation are actually quite fragmented in terms of their representation. There are multiple national confederations and federations of labour unions and peasant movements, for example. This will be a major challenge for KPRI as it seeks to form tactical alliances and mobilise its rank-and-file members in facing elections.

Collective action of the lower classes can pose a serious challenge to the continuing political and economic dominance of oligarchs in post-authoritarian Indonesia. Will KPRI constitute such a challenge? Its attempt to unify Indonesia’s fragmented social movements suggests it just might.