‘Activist, ecologist, progressive, humanitarian and trustworthy.’
In 2009, Indonesia’s pro-democracy activists put aside their aversion to formal politics and ran for parliament in record numbers. Beforehand, activists had mostly shunned elections for fear of being corrupted by party politics. But frustration at the pace and scope of reforms achieved during the first decade of democratic rule saw some of Indonesia’s most prominent activists abandon their previous ‘non-partisan’ stand. By not contesting elections, they decided, they had allowed non-reformists to take power unopposed.
Among the early movers was leftist activist Budiman Sudjatmiko, who rose to prominence as a political prisoner during the final years of Suharto’s rule. Sudjatmiko joined the mainstream Indonesian Democracy Struggle Party (PDI-P) in 2004, bringing a block of around 50 activists into the party with him. Another to enter electoral politics was Dita Indah Sari, a prominent labour organiser who was also jailed by the New Order. Sari was central to efforts to form a new leftist party, the National Liberation Party of Unity (Papernas), to compete in the 2009 elections. When Papernas failed to qualify, however, Sari led a block of Papernas activists en masse to join the mainstream but minor Islamic party, the Reform Star Party (PBR).
For these prominent activists, the move into electoral politics has produced mixed results. Sudjatmiko won a resounding victory to gain election to the national parliament, gaining the most votes of any candidate in his Central Java electorate. But Sari fared less well. Individually, she won few votes in her run for national parliament, despite reportedly spending several hundred million rupiah on her campaign. Moreover, PBR won only 1.2 per cent of votes nationally, well below the 2.5 per cent parliamentary threshold.
It was not only prominent national activists who chose to run for parliament in 2009. In Palu, the provincial capital of Central Sulawesi, around 40 activists with backgrounds in various student groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and social movements stood as candidates. A sleepy coastal city of 400,000 people, Palu has long stood out as a centre of activism in eastern Indonesia. Sharing a common concern with land rights, senior activist Anto Sangaji recalled, leftist organisations and NGOs have cooperated there since the early 1990s to build a strong activist movement.
Only a handful of activists succeeded at the polls
The 40-odd Palu-based activists running for parliament targeted all levels of politics, from the district to the provincial and national parliaments. Some ran in Palu itself, others chose to compete in different electorates around the province. Unfortunately for these activists, only a handful of them succeeded at the polls.
The 2009 elections marked the largest abandonment to date by activists in Central Sulawesi of their previous ‘non-partisan’ stand. But a handful of activists in Central Sulawesi have contested previous elections. Indeed, since 1999 former student activist Muharram Nurdin has represented PDI-P in the provincial parliament. Nurdin aside, other early candidates have found that NGO activism does not readily translate into votes.
In 2004, two NGO activists ran for the newly created Regional Representative Council (DPD), which includes four representatives for each province. Activists were attracted to the DPD because candidates had to be independent. Forbidden by their NGOs’ non-partisan stance from taking up party membership, the DPD represented their only chance to run for elected office.
In a 25-strong field, however, the two candidates placed twelfth and twentieth. Harley, then provincial director of environmental NGO Walhi, was the lower placed of the two with just 1.6 per cent of votes. He said he ran for office because he felt community empowerment could not be achieved through a strictly independent, non-partisan approach. ‘It was no longer time to be on the streets,’ he recalled recently, ‘when the political system had opened up.’
But Harley’s run for the DPD so dispirited him that he left Central Sulawesi soon after. He had done well in some of the areas where Walhi had conducted advocacy, but in a province-wide election these votes were far from enough. Because he needed to cover the whole province, the personal financial cost of running had also been very high. By his estimate, Harley had spent Rp.80 million ($A10,000) of his own money on his campaign.
The next chances for activists in Central Sulawesi to run for office were the elections for heads of local government held from 2005 to 2008. Activists tried to contest two district heads elections, each held in 2008 in districts near Palu. But in both cases they did not even succeed in getting their names on the ballot papers.
In Parigi Moutong district, senior human rights activist Dedi Askary sought a party nomination to run for district head. In Donggala district, by contrast, activists exploited a new provision allowing independent candidates. But neither ticket made it onto the ballot paper.
For Dedi Askary, currently head of the provincial Human Rights Commission office, the problem was that his chosen party was too small. Dedi paired with the Parigi Moutong chairperson of the National Mandate Party (PAN) to form a ticket for the election. PAN, however, needed to form a coalition with other parties to reach the seat quota to nominate. Despite their best efforts, the ticket fell one seat short.
In Donggala district, the activist ticket paired the head of the Central Sulawesi Poor People’s Association, Aristan, with Mutmainah Korona, a decorated female activist. To register as candidates, the pair needed the signatures of five per cent of the district’s voters. With the provision for independent candidates having been passed just before the election, time was short, and they failed to collect enough valid signatures.
A new approach
After the failures of 2004 and 2008, activists in Central Sulawesi were not expecting resounding success in 2009. Their candidates lacked money, were scattered across numerous parties, and faced the spectre of so-called ‘money politics’. Opponents and supporters of their move into politics were united in their prediction that activists could not win more than a handful of seats.
Opponents felt the limited chance of success invalidated the strategy. As one put it: ‘Think of Palu – there are 30 MPs, can one or two activists influence the rest?’ More outspoken critics even accused activist candidates of ‘just wanting a small slice of power’ for themselves.
Their candidates lacked money, were scattered across numerous parties, and faced the spectre of money politics
But others were determined to run despite the obstacles. ‘At the very moment that the political system has opened up, poverty and unemployment are increasing,’ said Adriany Badrah, explaining her decision to run for the national parliament with PBR. ‘This is a contradiction in terms.’
‘If we can get in, it will strengthen the activist movement,’ said another candidate, Rasyidi Bakry, who was running for the Palu city parliament. ‘Things have reached a dead end, there’s a disconnect on the issues.’ One step activists took in Central Sulawesi to maximise their chances was to form a political front to urge voters to choose activist candidates. Candidates signed a political contract with the front, and in return received help with campaigning.
Beyond joining the political front, activist candidates tried various other strategies to campaign effectively. For Rasyidi Bakry, an activist with a background in leftist student and labour groups and legal aid, and who became a candidate for the Palu city legislature for the National Awakening Party (PKB), the solution was to target his resources as specifically as possible. By running at city level, he minimised the number of votes he needed to win. Indeed, Rasyidi joked, if there was a level lower than the city parliament, he would have run for that instead.
‘We’ve calculated it will take about 1500 votes to get elected, so my team has drawn up a list of 1000 people in my electorate who we think there’s a good chance will vote for me,’ Rasyidi said, when interviewed just before the campaign period began. ’We’ll focus on creating landslide support among them.’
Rasyidi’s decision to run for PKB was a major obstacle to his chances of success, however. PKB is a major party nationally, but has almost no structure in Palu and had never won a seat in his electorate. PKB’s weak structure in Palu meant Rasyidi was able to become city chairperson despite joining the party only a year before the election, but also meant he had to rely on his own contacts to campaign.
One activist who did succeed was Huisman Brant, who ran for the provincial parliament for the Indonesian Democracy Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Unlike many of the other candidates, Brant’s background in activism is not with the left movement. Indeed, he had gravitated towards party politics as early as 1998, when he joined PDI-P. After an unsuccessful run for the Palu city legislature in 1999, however, Brant left the party and moved into NGO activism. A lawyer by training, he provided legal aid in cooperation with local human rights NGO LPSHAM, eventually rising to become director of the NGO.
Even before the election, fellow activists had identified Brant as having a particularly good chance of success. His electorate – which covered the districts of Poso, Morawali and Tojo Una-Una – was a good fit for him. Brant was originally from Morowali, and much of his work for LPSHAM had been in his electorate. In contrast to Rasyidi and many other activists, he had also secured candidacy with a party that gave him a good chance of success. PDI-P was an established party in Brant’s electorate, having won a seat there in the 2004 electorate.
Brant decided to run for parliament so that he could exert more pressure on the government on policy issues of direct relevance to communities, such as increasing agricultural productivity, investment, and preventing illegal seizures of land. As the only activist to make it into the 45-member provincial legislature, however, Brant acknowledged he faces an uphill battle to effect significant change. ‘It’s still important to try. You can’t determine [what impact you can have] beforehand.’
Whither the activists?
For Brant and the few other successful candidates, the challenge for the next five years is clear – to use their positions in local parliaments to pressure for change. For other activists in Central Sulawesi, the immediate future of the move into electoral politics is less certain. If they remain convinced that they need parliamentary representation to advance their social agenda, they will need a new strategy to attain it.
‘The problem this time was that people did not see our move into politics as a continuation of the advocacy we’ve been conducting outside parliament, as something intended to strengthen it,’ Rasyidi said. ‘That is one reason why most of us were not elected.’
Entering politics again in 2014 will almost certainly mean joining one of Indonesia’s established parties. In Rasyidi’s words, many political parties lack a clear platform, giving activists a chance to join and set the agenda. The problem for activists though is that their past electoral failures greatly weaken their bargaining position in choosing a party to target. Choose a minor party, and they may be able to control its agenda, but as this year’s experience shows, they are unlikely to be elected.
The likelihood then is that most activists will remain marginalised from the political scene. An open political system allows them to contest elections, but they are yet to find a formula to succeed. ii
Dave McRae (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher living in Indonesia and a member of Inside Indonesia’s editorial team.