Indonesia: “New Hope” president faces intense pressures

Initiative to build mass party of working class and rural poor urgently needed

"A New Hope" was the headline for the front cover of the latest issue of ‘Time’ magazine. It described Jokowi Widowo, the newly elected populist president known simply as Jokowi, as the new ‘Rising Star’ in ‘third world politics’. He is considered unique in Indonesia’s presidential history because he is neither from the political elite or a military background. Brought up in a riverside slum in the city of Solo, he went on to become a furniture exporter. In 2005 he successfully won the mayoral election in his home town.

For two years before the presidential election, he was also the governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. During his tenure as mayor in Solo and Governor in Jakarta he was considered as affable, with a common touch. His approach was a big contrast with that of other politicians.

Political gridlock

Jokowi’s victory at least prevented the possibility of former army chief, Prabowo, who served under Suharto, being elected in the most narrowly fought presidential election in the country’s history. There was a fear that if Prabowo had been elected as president, he would take Indonesia back into the ‘New Order’ period of 1965-1998.

In 1965, General Suharto carried through a coup d’état to overthrow the popular Sukarno government, carrying out the massacre of over one million members and supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party. The coup, backed by the Western capitalist bloc to stymie the influence of ‘communism’ during the Cold War, opened the way to the Suharto dictatorship which lasted for 32 years. At the time of the 1998 ‘reformasi’ movement to overthrow Suharto, his son-in-law Prabowo had significant influence in the military. He ordered the kidnapping of left and pro-democratic activists and the legal cases linked to those brutalities are still unfinished.

One of the promises of Jokowi during his election’s campaign was to solve the problem of human rights violations committed by the state, especially during the Suharto regime. Looking at Prabowo’s past record of human rights abuses, many middle-class and pro-democracy activists volunteered to campaign for Jokowi. But a week before the inauguration Jokowi met Prabowo, who pledged to support his government after months of conflict between them on the disputes over irregularities in the vote counting by Prabowo to undermine the victory of Jokowi. This compromise and the appointment of a hard-line former military general as Defence Minister will further undermine his commitment on past human rights abuses. Although Jokowi is seen as a populist figure, like previous presidents, he is also surrounded by political elites and corporate representatives who can been seen in the newly formed cabinet.

Jokowi may have won the presidency but the Great Indonesia Coalition (KIH) party led by him is weaker in the parliament. The Red White Coalition (KMP) that supports Prabowo has a majority in parliament. Last month they showed their strength by passing legislation to block the direct election of governors, mayors and district chiefs in what some regarded as a legislative coup. With local bodies given the task of picking these leaders, they attempt to prevent the emergence of political figures outside the political establishment through popular votes. This is another manoeuvre of the elite and oligarchs around Parabowo to strengthen their authority and to undermine the democratic rights that were gained after the ‘reformasi’ movement. KMP could also use their majority in the parliament to weaken the Jokowi government by blocking his reform plans.

The slowdown in the demand for commodities, as well as the slowest GDP growth in five years, is not favouring Jokowi’s ambitious project of achieving a “7% GDP growth by 2018 by moving Indonesia up the value chain, improving logistics and positioning the world’s largest archipelago nation as a global transport hub”. He is also under pressure to avoid breaching a legal limit on the budget deficit, and has already announced a cut in petrol subsidies, raising the petrol price by almost 45% in coming weeks. This austerity cut could further burden the rural poor, the working class as well as the middle class. In spite of the fact that Jokowi promised to divert the subsidies into funding welfare, social and development projects, these will be very limited with the slowing down of the economy and under the pressure of the profit-oriented ‘free’ market.

In order to really benefit the poor and the working class, the main economic entities such as the multinationals, banks, finance, land and other entities that dominate the economy should be nationalised under the democratic control and management of the working class and rural poor to democratically plan to meet the needs of the common people. This is not the intention of Jokowi who works within the framework of the capitalist economy.

Hope for change

On the day of Jokowi’s inauguration as the seventh president of Indonesia, thousands gathered on the streets of Jakarta to celebrate. Jokowi, who is also being likened to Obama, has brought hope of change for the common people who had gone through 32 years of Suharto’s dictatorship before the various governments which followed. For the rural poor and working class people of a country with the fourth largest population in the world, the last 16 years under different governments, have not much altered their social and economic conditions, even though there was a democratisation process after the ‘reformasi’ movement which gave some space for more rights. This demonstrates that since the fall of Suharto all the different parties that formed the subsequent governments have been safeguarding the interests of big businesses, which was also the norm during Suharto’s regime. The difference is whereas Suharto used dictatorship to protect capitalism the leaders after him used democracy as a cover to defend capitalism. In both cases, the rural poor, young people and the working class are the victims: their needs are continually subjugated.

Like Obama, who could not fulfil the desires and hopes of the 99% of the American working class and was under pressure from the 1%, with their corporate and business needs, it is expected that Jokowi will also be under pressure from the national and international business class to limit his reform agenda, according to the needs of free market capitalism. This demonstrates that merely a different style of leadership and a ‘clean track record’ are insufficient to resolve the underlying social and economic problems that have been determining the life of the common people in Indonesia.

The last general election showed that support for the ‘new order’ elite party Golkar and Prabowo has increased with the inability of the governments that followed the overthrow of Suharto to solve the social and economic needs of the poor and the working class. With no genuine alternative political forces to represent the rural poor, young people and workers, and with the undermining of hope for change through a Jokowi government, under the dictatorship of the market, in the near future it could give way to an autocratic regime led by Prabowo or Golkar (Suharto’s party).

The trade unionists and socialists have a crucial task to play in initiating an independent mass party for the working class, rural poor and young people. This can fill the vacuum that still exists, as an alternative to capitalist parties and also as the uniting force of the struggles of the common people to fulfil their needs and welfare.

New struggles

In 2012 and 2013, when Jokowi was the Governor of Jakarta, he refused to meet the demands of the trade unions to increase the minimum wage. Following this, in the presidential elections, the leadership of the Confederation of All Indonesian Workers Union (KSPI) campaigned against Jokowi and supported Prabowo. This revealed the unprincipled approach of the KSPI leadership that was willing to give support to a leader such as Prabowo who has silenced democratic rights, just for their own political interests.

With the fuel price hike and deteriorating economic conditions, there will be more pressure on the lives of people and new struggles could emerge from the working class and rural poor to fight for better conditions. But the right wing around Prabowo and Golkar could use any social and economic impact of such struggles which might destabilise the Jokowi government to try to steal power. As previous experience has shown, with a capitalist agenda as their priority, neither Jokowi nor Prabowo will address the real needs of the common people. To get real change, an independent mass party for the working class, rural poor and young people is needed – a party which fights for socialism as the only alternative to the robbery and deprivation of capitalism.

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November 2014