Indonesian elections: massive rejection of the Suharto era

The elections of June 7th in Indonesia were seized upon by the masses as an opportunity to express their rejection of the Habibie-Suharto regime and to unseat it. Although some layers of the student movement and workers activists called for a boycott of those elections their appeal had no significant impact amongst the masses. The massive rallies organised by the so-called "reform parties," especially in the capital Jakarta, attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The elections of June 7th in Indonesia were seized upon by the masses as an opportunity to express their rejection of the Habibie-Suharto regime and to unseat it. Although some layers of the student movement and workers activists called for a boycott of those elections their appeal had no significant impact amongst the masses. The massive rallies organised by the so-called "reform parties," especially in the capital Jakarta, attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. In one case even the Indonesian Democratic Party assembled 1 million people in the centre of the city. Although the count is not concluded yet, one conclusion can already be drawn: Golkar, the political instrument of the 32 year old dictatorship, has been strongly defeated at the ballot box. The destruction of Golkar symbols and the physical attacks against their activities during the campaign were symptoms of the concentrated hatred against this party especially amongst the poorest sections of society.

The bourgeois opposition to the New Order, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the first Indonesian president; the National Awakening Party (PKB) of Gus Dur; and the National Mandate Party (PAN) led by Amien Rais, are expected to gain an overwhelming share of the vote. Megawati alone would take the lions share with 40%. Golkar, still a formidable machine of status-quo, thanks to its control of the state at all levels, is expected to gain 20%. This is particularly the case in the more isolated villages and in the peripheral islands outside Java. The electoral system gives these islands more electoral weight than Java and the urban centres. Many independent observers confirm that large scale vote manipulations have taken place engineered by Golkar officials. The "Big Five", the above mentioned parties together with the United Development Party (PPP) a remnant of the Suharto regime, will garner almost 90% of all votes. 43 other parties share the remainder.

The left Democratic Peoples Party, PRD, whose activists played an important role in the overthrow of Suharto, and whose main leaders are still in prison, will have a very low vote.

Elections to channel peoples aspirations away from mass struggle

The elections were a clear manoeuvre of the Habibie government to divert the attention to oust the crony president of Suharto and to put Suharto on trial, but the masses (urban poor, peasants and workers) considered them as a chance to challenge the regime and impose a democratic change. These elections were called by an illegitimate parliament, whose members were appointed in the Suharto era. The election rules were designed to give Golkar and the army the best chance to preserve their main privileges and even possible control of the next government and presidency.

The elections only affect 66% (462 seats) of all members of parliament who will elect the new president in November. 38 extra seats are allocated to the military. 200 other seats will be composed by the provincial assemblies and social organisations, who are still under the control of Golkar. This still gives a chance to the remnants of the old regime, even for Habibie to stay in power after November.

This is particularly true when one considers the nature of the bourgeois opposition. The 3 main bourgeois opposition parties, PDI-P, PKB and PAN joined in a formal coalition against the "status quo" forces before the elections. First of all, this is the same coalition which betrayed the student protests in the second week of November 1998 when they signed the famous Ciganjur agreement, recognising the legitimacy of the Habibie government and his election manoeuvre, rejecting the demand put forward by the students that they should immediately form a transitional government, and abandoning the demand for the immediate abolition of the political and social role of the army. The last thing these people want is to come to power on the crest of a wave of mass protest. Their desire to distance themselves from the recent mass struggles, responsible for the overthrow of Suharto one year ago, was again visible when the leaders of those parties refused to participate in May at the commemoration act for the 4 Trisakti students murdered by the military.

These parties are more afraid of the masses in action than of the status quo. Therein lies the true counterrevolutionary character of this bourgeois opposition.

Secondly, all three parties forming this "anti-status quo coalition" established close links with the same forces they pretend to combat.

PDI-P has joined with a lot of army generals and maintains relations with "reform" elements in Golkar ( in reality rats deserting the sinking ship). Megawati also rejects any idea of a referendum about East Timor. In the discussions about the composition of the next government PDI-P openly proposes to keep some of the Golkar ministers in their jobs in order to "guarantee political continuity." Gus Dur of PKB, has recently visited Suharto in his private villa to consult the old dictator about the political future of Indonesia and opened good relations with the head of the military, General Wiranto.

The army, thanks to its 38 seats in parliament and its mostly intact social and economic power structure, is holding the main cards in its hands. Amien Rais, the modern Muslim intellectual and leader of PAN also formed a coalition with the PPP, an open ally of Golkar. The main activity of this party in the last two weeks has been intense coalition negotiations. This is the essence of this transition period: the reorganisation of the power structure amongst the bourgeois in order to change the methods of rule (the regime) but not the essence of the system.

Of course to keep Habibie in power would be seen as a provocation and probably spur the students, but not only them, into action again. Another means of maintaining the continuity of the old regime would be to appoint General Wiranto as vice-president. Megawati could then be president as a "guarantee" of "reformasi" (the reform movement).

Big hopes for change which no government based on capitalism will able to satisfy

Whatever coalition comes to power it will very rapidly face what some analysts correctly describe as a "crisis of expectations." The election campaign was relatively quiet and non-violent, compared with most predictions. The main reason for this was that all hopes for change were channelled in electoral illusions. The description of the election campaign as a "fiesta of democracy" was not exaggerated. There was genuine enthusiasm for this election. The caravans of noisy buses, cars and motorbikes of the different parties were like happy carnivals. This depoliticised the campaign. But let nobody be fooled by the happiness and smiles on election day. Expectations are running very high. But this has another side too.

The poorest in the cities, the young, the workers and the peasants want immediate change. "I give the next government two months" a street seller told us. Indeed the poor cannot wait. Malnutrition (deficiency of vitamin A) is widespread amongst pregnant women and children. The social conditions in Jakarta are twice as bad as in Bangladesh. The rising level of malnutrition in the last two years is having a devastating effect on Indonesia's youth, especially those below the age of three. Almost 90% of a healthy human's brain cells are formed in the first two years. These children will become the slow-learners, and highly susceptible to disease and even death.

A Unicef coordinator predicts: "We will lose one generation if we cannot act." But aid programmes in the countryside are not a lasting solution. Peasant organisers in Central Java told us: "Look, the local NGO has spent millions in distributing food packets in the villages. Now they have run out of money and they realise what we told them before, that the problem persists. The peasants start to organise now and do not wait for the NGO's help." Indeed last year "conflicts of ownership control and the use of land and natural resources between peasants and the state became more open and extensive and sporadically happened all over the country" concludes a report of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation. 553 of those conflicts have been recorded last years, involving more than 1 million peasants.

Workers from the textile plants from Solo in Central Java were also explicit: "Reform did not enter the factories. Here in Sritex, 13,000 workers work an average of 11 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. We earn 155,000 rupiah a month (approx. £15). The military have a permanent unit in the factory. The walls are protected by barbed wire. Some 100 plain clothed military check the workers on the floor for dissident voices or union activists. When we go into action we are still beaten up by the military.

"Our factory is the property of Suharto's son in law and his daughter. This explains a lot. Reform for us means the right to strike, to organise, higher wages, to build workers power and to challenge the bosses privileges." Another organiser adds: "You know as long as capitalism exists it will never be able to solve our problems. The capitalists will always exploit the workers. We have to also struggle to abolish that oppression." But workers have been stunned by the severity of the economic crisis. If a lot of them supported the movement to overthrow Suharto, the deep effect of unemployment and low wages has not pushed them into an independent mass movement.

Last year, 26% of the workforce was expelled from the factories and the minimum wage (which is the average wage) covers only two weeks of food and housing. So a lot of workers are forced into 2 or 3 jobs to be able to survive. Some women workers are being force into prostitution in order to survive. It is no accident that in 1998 strike figures were half that in 1997. But the workers are still the decisive social force in Indonesian society. "Workers are half of the population in this country," explains a union organiser from Surakarta. "There are 100 million of us. We are a better power in the struggle for democracy, because we want to carry it out to the end."

Probably the workers will move massively again with a recovery in the economy like in South Korea, where the lowering of the unemployment figures and new orders pushed the workers into action. The difference with Indonesia is that the independent and democratic workers movement is still very weak even after the formation of a new national union federation (FNPBI) at the initiative of PRD workers groups. But to take off such a

federation would have to unify all the different workers groups on a democratic basis around a common program of demands and action. At the moment it is limited to the PRD periphery. Compared to South Korea, the Indonesian labour movement is still in its pre-87 stage. But any kind of coalition government in Indonesia will not be able to deliver the goods. This will push workers, peasants and students to new political conclusions and organisational initiatives. The student movement for example which was instrumental in overthrowing Suharto is in desperate need of a correct strategy and a united leadership. A nation wide socialist student organisation linked to the workers and peasants struggle and committed to struggling against capitalism is greatly needed today. Time is ripe for such an initiative at the Indonesian campuses and high schools.

The PRD, who despite very low votes appears as the main left political force, is on the wrong track when it campaigns for a coalition government of the so-called "reform parties"(PDI-P, PKB and PAN). In doing this they act as a left cover for the bourgeois opposition. This "tactic" is inspired by the strategy of artificially separating a "democratic stage" from the "socialist revolution". Far from being a Leninist conception - Lenin struggled always against the reformists in the movement who formed political coalitions with the "democratic bourgeoisie"- this political line is a Stalinist deformation. Of course it is correct to propose joint action around concrete demands (even if only democratic) with those parties who command still a lot of authority amongst the most downtrodden of society, like PDI-P. This must have the aim to destroy the illusions of those masses in their leaders and to win them over to socialism. But it is a different thing altogether to issue calls to vote "for one of the reformist parties". If people vote "it doesn't even need to be for us" says Faisal Reza, leader of the PRD (Jakarta Post of 17/5/99). The proposal and campaign for a "coalition government" is from the same vein. This implies a political block with the bourgeoisie. The only kind of unity we can accept must be unity in struggle. But the current line of PRD line does not contribute to unmask the real nature of the bourgeois opposition.

As we said last year in "Marxism and the struggle against imperialism":

"The main task is to explain that the national bourgeoisie is completely unable to carry the (democratic revolution) trough. The workers and youth will have to be educated in a spirit of implacable opposition to class collaboration, to mistrust even the most radical sounding bourgeois politician of the "opposition", and to fight for an independent proletarian revolutionary line. Of course, it will be necessary to make temporary alliances with non-proletarian forces. But in the main these will be the petit-bourgeoisie and the peasantry, not the bourgeois liberals. Secondly, the prior condition of any agreements is the maintenance at all times of a clear revolutionary program and policy. The Bolshevik slogan was always: "March separately and strike together". There must be no programmatic blocs and mixing of programs and banners."

The democratic promises of reformasi - the trial of Suharto, the end of the double function of the military, the elimination of corruption and nepotism, increased democratic rights in particular the effective right to organise and to strike - will not become reality under a capitalist system in crisis. During the election campaign students and peasants in Medan, protesting against illegal land appropriation by big plantations, were shot and some of them died. The military continue to intervene in social conflicts everywhere in the country.

To "restore confidence," as the PDI-P programme promises the business world, in a situation where Indonesia is probably the weakest link of South-East Asian capitalism means a savage programme of attacks against the living conditions of the workers and the peasants in the months ahead, imposed by the IMF. This situation will continue to give the army a prominent role in domestic politics to stall unrest.

The crisis has revealed the structural weaknesses of capitalism in Indonesia. "It doesn't really have any world class companies, it had very badly restructured debt, dreadful problems with implicit and explicit guarantees to investors and a very unstable political situation. All these things make Indonesia what we see today, the guy bringing up the rear" says a regional economist based in Singapore.

Since the elections, hopes of political stabilisation are very high in business circles. "Within the past two weeks a remarkable wave of optimism has swept through Jakarta: there is a distinct feeling that an end to the political turmoil that has deepened the recession might at last be at hand. However, such optimism may be premature. Indonesia needs more than a mere cessation of violence. It needs the June 7th vote to be viewed as legitimate -- by village, elite, and international communities alike -- and it needs a new president willing and able to carry out a systemic change from crony capitalism to a well- regulated market economy. Neither of these two crucial conditions may be forthcoming." warns the Indonesian-Australian Business Council Newsletter ( June 17, 1999)

The Indonesian workers and youth will face tremendous challenges in the next few years. Only those able to understand the real counterrevolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie and the decisive revolutionary force of a magnificent working class, the majority composed of youth and women, will assure the triumph of the necessary social transformation. Some of these revolutionary youth have already started to answer that challenge.

by Jean Duval (Belgian socialist activist)
Jakarta, June 16, 1999