SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 88 - December-January 2004/05

Indonesia: business as usual

SIX YEARS after a mass movement of students and workers overthrew the Suharto dictatorship, a former general who served loyally under the old regime has been sworn in (20 October) as the new Indonesian president.

In September’s second round elections, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (also known as SYB) won by a landslide 61% against the sitting president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. The result is even more spectacular considering that Yudhoyono was in Megawati’s cabinet up until March this year and only then formed his Democratic Party. Megawati lost badly despite the greater resources of her Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the backing of several other parties and even support from Golkar, the political front of the old Suharto regime and the biggest party in parliament.

Working people did not vote for SYB with any enthusiasm. They turned to him to show their disgust and disillusionment with the neo-liberal policies of Megawati. Yudhoyono opportunistically played to this mood, presenting himself as an ‘independent’ who would act on behalf of the poor. But his cabinet includes many well-known establishment faces, including ministers from Golkar.

Given that this was the first direct presidential elections in post-Suharto Indonesia, the response by workers was flat. Abstention rates were high: 33 million registered voters did not vote and several million did not bother to register. Urban areas – the cockpit of the 1990s anti-Suharto struggle – were the most affected.

None of the candidates reflected the growing opposition to the neo-liberal policies of successive governments. Over the last few months, strikes have broken out in many cities and towns, rural struggles have increased, and big protests take place regularly in the capital, Jakarta.

Despite enthusiastic endorsement by Western powers, the elections were far from democratic. As a legacy of Suharto’s rule, any party calling for socialism is automatically banned from contesting. Only parties that won 5% of the vote in last April’s parliamentary elections were allowed to stand in the presidential elections. (Only a fraction of the 140 parties that wanted to stand in the parliamentary elections were allowed to do so.) This meant that there were five pro-capitalist candidates contesting the first round in July. Megawati and Yudhoyono won the highest votes and so fought it out in September.

Despite his populist stance, Yudhoyono will continue with Megawati’s cuts now that he is in office. His economic team includes the ex-regional head of the IMF and a free-marketeer, Mari Pangestu, as trade minister. Pangestu is expected to reverse protectionist measures made by the last government, including a ban on rice imports. Nor will Yudhoyono take serious measures against widespread corruption by big business and state officials. The new president made clear to business figures that they would not be pursued for ‘past misdeeds’.

Furthermore, the records show that Yudhoyono is prepared to use vicious repression on behalf of the ruling class. The ex-general played a key role in the armed forces under Suharto in the 1970s and 1980s, and served in East Timor during the long years of brutal Indonesian occupation. He was chief of staff in the Jakarta region during the army assault against the mass movement in the late 1990s.

Once Suharto was kicked out of power, Yudhoyono changed sides, announcing that he too was a ‘reformer’. But he was later instrumental in the army-backed violence of pro-Indonesian militias on East Timor in 1999, and in the 2003 army offensive against separatists in Aceh.

Just like the previous rule of self-proclaimed ‘reformasi’ leaders, Abdurrahman Wahid of the National Awakening Party (PKB) and later Megawati, Yudhoyono’s time in office will disappoint whatever hopes workers, youth and the middle class still have in the new president.

The opposition of the main ‘reform’ politicians to Suharto was always very limited. They feared that the mass movement could get out of their control. Crucially, they did a deal with the Suharto regime in 1998 to allow partial reforms and elections, which fell way short of the demands of working people.

With widespread support, Megawati won the 1999 elections but without an overall majority. Pro-Suharto forces feared she was too susceptible to the demands of the poor, so they shoe-horned Wahid into the presidency. Although a timid reformer, Wahid enraged the military/Golkar establishment, especially his making minor concessions to separatists from Papua and Aceh. After a prolonged impeachment battle he was removed and Megawati was made president.

Despite the military’s earlier misgivings, Megawati proved a loyal ally. She stepped up repression in Aceh and Papua. Following the devastating Islamic terrorist Bali bombings in 2002, which left hundreds of Indonesians and Australians dead, Megawati introduced new repressive legislation. Under her rule, living standards fell. Following the diktats of the IMF and World Bank, she sold off state enterprises and attacked social welfare. Corruption remains endemic, with tens of millions of dollars looted from the state by officials in recent years.

The country never recovered from the 1997-98 Asian economic meltdown when Indonesia (previously described by the World Bank as ‘a model pupil of globalisation’), and other ‘Tiger’ economies collapsed. Indonesia’s continuing economic crisis and stiff competition for foreign investment in the region, particularly from China, has been disastrous in human and economic terms. Around half the population lives on $2 a day or less. Officially, there are 40 million people unemployed or underemployed. For the first time, this vast country of rich natural resources, including oil and natural gas, is a net importer of oil.

The Indonesian ruling class sees increased exploitation of working people as the way to increase profits. Yudhoyono is under pressure from Western powers and big business to lower subsidies for oil and to end ‘inflexible’ labour legislation. Subsidies keep fuel below world prices, and millions of Indonesians rely on cheap cooking fuel and gas to live. Every previous attempt to cut the subsidies, including by Wahid and Megawati, were driven back by mass protests. Even Suharto was forced to subsidise fuel in turn for social peace. By carrying out measures like these, Yudhoyono will soon come into conflict with working people and the poor.

He will also anger many Indonesians by his plan to forge closer links with the US administration’s ‘fight against terrorism’. The people of the world’s largest Muslim nation are already furious at US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In conditions of poverty, and in the absence of a mass socialist alternative, right-wing political Islam is gaining a foothold in Indonesia and Asia.

Closer US and Indonesian military co-operation will also be used against future mass opposition and, in particular, working-class movements. In this situation, it is vital that the workers, students and the poor have a socialist alternative. The main left party in Indonesia is the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), which in the 1990s won a reputation as a fighting, radical organisation, especially amongst students. During a tenth anniversary meeting held last July a PRD leader correctly opposed Yudhoyono and Megawati: "The candidates… [have] done nothing for the welfare of the people and [have] been a servant of international capital". (Green Left Weekly, Online Edition, 28 July)

However, this opposition to capitalist politicians has not always been the PRD leadership’s position. Previously, it raised illusions in so-called ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic’ figures from various wings of the ruling class. During the movement against Suharto, the PRD backed Megawati. Only when Megawati clearly linked up with Golkar and the army tops did the PRD drop its support. But the mistake was repeated when the party opted to back Wahid as the best guarantor of democratic rights. This ignores the fact that all sections of the ruling class in the ex-colonial world are incapable of carrying out consistent democratic reforms or transforming the living conditions of the mass of the people. How can they, when the system they are based on – capitalism and landlordism – is responsible for the barbaric conditions facing working people?

Yudhoyono’s neo-liberal agenda and growing resistance to it mean that there will be big social and class battles ahead. Furthermore, as long as genuine self-determination and minority rights are denied to various oppressed nationalities and ethnic groups, Yudhoyono’s stated ‘priority’ of ‘defusing’ separatist movements will fail.

With his Democratic Party holding only one tenth of the seats in the lower house of parliament, while PDI and Golkar make up the majority of the rest, Yudhoyono needs to spread the blame for deeply unpopular policies. In October, he assembled a ‘united Indonesian cabinet’. But this coalition will come under immense pressures from an angry population and could fall apart.

Big opportunities will be presented to the working class to change society. To succeed they need a revolutionary socialist party, with an independent class programme.

Niall Mulholland


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