Sep 19, 2018 Last Updated 3:08 AM, Sep 19, 2018

The distraction is over

Published: Jul 25, 2007


Max Lane

The Indonesian presidential elections took place on 20 September. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY, was declared the winner by the General Elections Commission on 4 October. He gathered 69,266,350 or 60.62 per cent of the vote. The second candidate, President Megawati Sukarnoputri gained 44,990,704 votes or 39.38 per cent. There were 2,405,651 informal votes or 2.05 per cent. Despite the fact that these were the first ever direct presidential elections, at least 33 million Indonesians abstained.

As Inside Indonesia readers will know, the September presidential elections finished a process that began in April with parliamentary elections and was punctuated in July with a first round presidential vote.

With the elections now over, the overwhelming majority of commentary is emphasising the smooth and trouble free nature of the election process. In this view, the political framework that emerged after the fall of Suharto has become stable. Associated with this kind of analysis is also an assumption, or assertion, that renewed stability under a SBY presidency will start to attract foreign investment back to Indonesia and therefore begin to solve the country’s economic problems. This approach posits the election as a climax to a political reformation of the institutions of representation and government thrown into chaos after Suharto was brought down.

Social struggle

There is another way to view the elections, however: as a moment in a longer running struggle over the political economy of Indonesian society. This struggle is at present intensifying. The elections were, in many ways, simply a distraction. There is little doubt that the political form of Suharto’s New Order regime — a dictatorship — was a major focus for intensified political opposition to Suharto during the 1990s. In particular, various sections of the Indonesian elite were increasingly eager for a system that shared power more ‘equitably’ among them, rather than concentrating such power, and the wealth that went with it, in the hands of only Suharto and his cronies.

However, the unravelling of the Suharto regime in the form it took —giving birth to the ideas of ‘reformasi’ — would not have been possible if the disaffections of these elite groups had not also been paralleled by widespread discontent among the urban and rural poor. Suharto was forced into resignation as a result of increasing popular anger manifesting itself in protests, strikes, or rioting in a combination that threatened a total breakdown into ungovernmentability.

We should remember that the steady increase in social protest that began at the end of the 1980s was not initially centred on getting rid of Suharto. It also aimed to resolve socio-economic grievances. The large protests that surrounded the Kedung Ombo dam development in Central Java, the big strikes at industrial plants like Great Rivers and Gajah Tunggal, the land occupations of Cimacan and other areas, and the myriad of other protests were all responses to the growing range of socio-economic grievances flowing from the New Order’s neo-liberal economic strategy.

The increasing number of riots was also connected to this spread of socio-economic discontent. Many members of the urban poor sought scapegoats for their bad living conditions. Some found those scapegoats among members of the ethnic Chinese community, others in ‘outside’ ethnic groups who had moved to their regions. Here too, the dictatorship as a political form was not the initial source of protest and resentment. Rather, the basic problem was impoverishment and inequality.

Neo-liberal agendas

After the fall of Suharto, the Habibie, Wahid and Megawati governments have not only continued the New Order’s general neo-liberal economic strategy. They have deepened these policies. This has been a consequence of the government’s greater subservience to the conditionalities imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There has been a steady reduction in subsidies on prices of basic goods and a dismantling of protection for Indonesian based industry and agriculture. Factory closures and declines in important areas of agricultural production as well as pressures on farmers’ incomes have been the result.

Throughout the 2004 election campaign, no party or candidate questioned these strategies. Incoming president SBY did not question this strategy while he was a minister in Megawati’s government or while he was campaigning. The acceptance of the neo-liberal economic strategy by all candidates also helps explain the absence of enthusiasm among the mass of people for any of the parties’ or candidates’ campaigns.

At least 30 per cent of eligible voters didn’t even bother to vote, despite this being the moment of Indonesia’s ‘democratic triumph’. Equally important was the absence of any manifestation of popular enthusiasm for the candidates in terms of large scale direct participation in campaign activities. If anything, disillusion was more the feature. Seventy per cent of people voted but more out of (faint) hope than conviction.

While the election campaigning all operated within the framework of accepting the economic strategy status quo, protests over socio-economic grievances continued unabated. Strikes over privatisation, redundancy or pay continued around the country. Farmers kept protesting about land compensation or other issues. Students occupied university administration offices to protest against fee increases. Teachers, nurses and village administration employees protested to senior bureaucrats about insufficient funds for these areas.

Almost no sector of society has not featured such protests. Many such protests have been small, although earlier in the year some were very large, such as the teacher–student demonstrations in Kampar, Sumatra, which mobilised tens of thousands. The Kampar demonstrations, sparked by the rude response of a bupati (district head) when he was questioned over the allocation of funds for education, forced the bupati’s removal.

Two distinct realities

In many ways, the disconnection between the protests and the election campaign made the latter seem somewhat surreal. Both realms of activity, the ‘beauty contest’ style election campaign and the protests and debates about the socio-economic situation were reported in the media, but it was as if they were parts of different realities.

Since the election, the two realms have started to move towards fusing again. Editorials and commentators in the media have been raising real concerns over impending further reductions in subsidies on fuel and the inevitable rise in prices. Few doubt thýs will be one of SBY’s first actions, although many commentators are advising him to postpone such a move for three months, until he wins the people’s confidence. His options for increasing confidence, however, are limited while he is wedded to the very policies giving rise to the grievances in the first place.

Some place hope in a return of investment because they assume that SBY will be able to bring an end to the growth in networks able to carry out terrorist attacks, restructure the courts so foreign companies get better decisions or otherwise achieve better conditions for investment. But one such condition that employers are pushing for is a reduction in the minimum wage: a policy hardly likely to end social discontent.

In any case, long before any supposed investment flows might return (if they ever do) many more factories will close down. Next year, new World Trade Organisation regulations will come into force, allowing more cheap imports into the country. Manufacturers have been quoted in the media as saying that around half of industrial zones will close down.

The elections have not resolved any of the issues that produced increasing popular protest and anger throughout the 1990s. If anything, the strategy that has produced these grievances will get a breath of life from the new government. And while the end of Suharto’s dictatorship has met the demands of most of the sections of the elite for a share of power, it has not ended the fighting amongst them over how that power has been shared. Even before SBY was sworn in, the parliament divided into ‘government„ and ‘opposition’, not on the grounds of differing economic or social strategies, but in alliances of opportunistic convenience.

Max Lane (max_lane@bigpond.com) is a Convenor of the Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference and a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005



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