Dec 01, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Utopians for parliament

Published: Apr 16, 2022

Gerry van Klinken & Yogi Setya Permana

In various parts of the world, green parties emerged in the 1970s. They are now established political actors, particularly in the West. The German Greens are part of the new centre-left coalition there after last year’s elections. They were also previously in government from 1998 to 2005. In 1992 green parties from around the world met at Rio de Janeiro. ‘Experience teaches us,’ they concluded there, ‘that governments are only moved to take environmental problems seriously when people vote for environmental political parties.’ In 2001 they formed an international network called the Global Greens. It now has more than 100 member parties and movements. The Indonesian Green Party (Partai Hijau Indonesia, PHI) is one of them. So is a local Indonesian party called the Atjeh Green Party (Partai Atjeh Hijau).

Global Greens members sign up to a charter that contains six principles. These reflect the green political ideology or ‘ecopolitics’ that inspires such movements everywhere. The first is ecological wisdom, involving a commitment ‘to learn to live within the ecological and resource limits of the planet.’ Living like this demands cooperation rather than competition. The other five principles elaborate on what that means in personal and political terms. They are: social justice, participatory democracy, nonviolence, sustainability, and respect for diversity. Ecopolitics are closely related to other eco-centric political ideologies, including ecofeminism, eco-socialism and green anarchism. The depth of change green parties want places them at the radical, utopian end of the political spectrum.

So far, green parties have not been as successful in Asia and the Pacific as in Europe’s social democracies. Small memberships make fundraising difficult. Few manage to clear minimum thresholds to participate in elections. Those that do, win few votes. The Australian scholar Stewart Jackson explored in a recent article why that might be. One reason is that the young and highly educated middle classes, which created green parties in Europe out of their post-materialist values, are much smaller in Asia. Another is that pro-democracy movements struggling against Asian authoritarianism tend to think of ecology as a second-order problem. Yet another is that the patron-client relations typical of many large political parties in Asia – including Indonesia – encourage socially conservative identity politics. ‘Green’ demands for radical change find it difficult to get a hearing. However, the educated young urbanites who produce change elsewhere in the world are growing more influential in Southeast Asia too. Michael Schafer, a Singapore scholar who pointed this out recently, thinks the region may eventually see the rise of its own green movement.

PHI is a new party, and it does not yet qualify to participate in Indonesian elections. Two German-educated nature lovers started a Green Party (Partai Hijau) in the euphoria of reformasi in 1998, but it did not take off. In the historic 1999 elections, the environmental movement WALHI tried to push the large parties to adopt ‘green’ policies. The National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, PKB) – close to the popular Islamic leader Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) – did take the bait, but afterwards failed to follow through. In 2007, WALHI formed the Indonesia Green Union (Sarekat Hijau Indonesia, SHI), largely as an educational movement. This did join the international network. SHI activists then set up the Indonesian Green Party in 2012. It took another nine years till the first congress was held on 28 February 2021. In a wholly democratic spirit, the congress elected a ‘presidium’ of five leaders, and drew up a highly principled set of statutes along the lines of the Global Greens Charter.

Demonstrating to save the anti-corruption commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, KPK) in 2019. L to R: Bekti Wibowo, John Muhammad, Melissa Kowara, and Novita / John Muhammad

We spoke to several members of the PHI leadership via Zoom on 10 March, 2022. They were presidium members John Muhammad (JM), Kristina Viri (KV) and Taibah Istiqamah (TI), as well as Jakarta branch presidium member Melissa Kowara (MK) and PHI gender justice spokesperson and filmmaker Ade Kusumaningrum (AK). We asked them particularly about their own utopian visions.

How did you and the Green Party end up where you are?

JM: I started off as a human rights activist. But I learned a lot about green politics through WALHI, SHI and PHI, and through their international network. I first met our global partners at the Asia-Pacific Greens Congress in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2015, and then via the 2017 Global Greens Congress in Liverpool, Bristol and Edinburgh in the UK.

We spoke out during the 2014 elections here. But we were not really ready as a party. These were difficult years. Lots of people tried things and failed. Others were tired of fighting the state and joined it instead. The thresholds for electoral participation were getting higher.

We had a lot of internal debate about the values we wanted to base our party on. Some people were very leftist, others more rightist, some were nationalists, others more focused on LGBTQ issues. Also, Indonesians are stuck in some old, time-consuming ways of making decisions, getting funding, and so on. But the 2017 Liverpool meeting gave us lots of new ideas about how to organise. In 2020 we mobilised hard among our friends in civil society. We gained a lot of new members, mostly young. Many had demonstrated against the 2019 revised law weakening the anti-corruption commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi: KPK), and the 2020 so-called Job Creation Law (Ciptaker) that severely reduced forest protection. Others were with the new and youthful social democratic party Partai Solidaritas Indonesia (PSI).

After 2021 we became increasingly radical within the party. There was no hierarchy. Members were to lead themselves. We called it a Holacracy. When we established the national presidium at the February 2021 meeting, we agreed to be affirmative about filling it with a good balance of young people below the age of 30, women, those from outside Java, and representatives of other marginal or special groups. A collective presidium is actually against the existing law for political parties, which requires a single chairperson, a secretary, and a treasurer.

Why does Indonesia need a Green Party? What would happen without PHI? What does the party offer?

JM: I hold on to the utopia. Everything starts with a dream. Let’s say we are in 2030. My utopia is that we have managed to defeat ecological destruction. Some generals have been sentenced for their human rights violations. Some victims have been honoured in street names. Indonesia has become a healthy country, with a healthy forest. We remain a non-bloc country, building alliances without violence. In my Muslim perspective, the enlightened ideas of Natsir (anti-colonialism), Nurcholish Madjid (Islam yes, Islamic Party no) and Gus Dur (inclusive Islam) have been widely accepted around the Muslim world. There are lots of cooperatives. Energy is freely available – not controlled by corporations but run by the citizens themselves. 

MK: We will have changed the political system. It will be based on popular participation by society. My background is Extinction Rebellion; that is my model. The economic system will also be changed. It will no longer be oriented to increasing the GDP, but towards enhancing life. This is my utopia. We will have reduced the need for money. We will be self-sufficient. We will have enough food and water to supply ourselves. Instead of neoliberal economics, we will practice ‘doughnut economics’ – where humans cooperate with nature, creating prosperity in a flourishing web of life. And our society will be based on values – not ‘ego’ but ‘eco’ – ecological wisdom. Ecocide will be illegal.

KV: The problem is that the oligarchy controls the parties in Indonesia. Political parties are not representative. Back in 2008 I was able to engage with the political parties, giving them ideas for progressive legislation. That is no longer possible now. Progressive voices are not heard.

JM: And that is why it is so difficult to enter politics in Indonesia.

/ https://www.oplysning.org/blogartikler/magteliten-det-nye-oligarki

Let’s talk about coal, greenhouse gas emissions, and the ecological crisis.

TI: It’s the oligarchy again. The power of coal is very close to the government. Mas Dandhy Laksono and Suparta Arz have shown this in their film Sexy Killers. You know yourself that the people close to President Jokowi are all into coal. It is extremely difficult to get out of this dirty business. The Indonesian system is designed only for one purpose – the national economy – and this always results in the destruction of natural resources.

It is moreover very difficult to establish a political party that can participate in elections. We must have an office in every province, and in 75 per cent of districts, and then we must pay an enormous sum just to register. We have members in every province, some are very well known, but not everyone wants to speak out on behalf of green politics. If it was just the climate, lots more people would probably join. But we are also against patriarchy, we are anti the oligarchs – it is all connected. And that puts people off joining the party.

MK: Actually a lot of people have become anti-party. They are looking for an alternative politics. Some are talking about a Democratic Political Bloc, which is a socio-political arena created from the bottom up by civil society itself to look after its interests, free of sectarianism. In the elections, more and more people are voting blank (golongan putih, or golput). Just with them, that would be enough to green all of politics.

AK: I am an independent filmmaker working on gender issues. I am lesbian. Even some of my feminist friends keep away from me. I used to be with the Democratic People's Party (Partai Rakyat Demokratik, PRD), but PHI is the most inclusive group I know. It is extremely radical. But many of my friends are golput and anti-party. I feel that too. Everyone else only has ‘money’ as their utopia.

The German Greens used to have internal debates between the fundis and the realos, between the purists and the pragmatists who want to achieve results. What are you?

JM: We have chosen to be fundi. Our values are the most basic. No other parties have values. But we need to be more outspoken about our values. We have chosen to be a place where people can seek shelter. Even some of our best friends still have difficulty saying they are PHI members. Our membership might actually be declining. But our strategy must be: values first, like the Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, PKS) at the beginning, before they turned into the corrupt PKS of today.

But we will get there. At the moment we only have an office in Jakarta. We are looking to open others elsewhere. Prominent friends like Usman Hamid, Rocky Gerung and Haris Azhar expect PHI to lead a Democratic Political Bloc.

Yogi Setya Permana (permana@kitlv.nl) is a PhD researcher studying climate governance with the KITLV at Leiden University in The Netherlands. Gerry van Klinken (klinken@kitlv.nl) is an honorary professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Queensland, at KITLV, and at the University of Amsterdam.

Inside Indonesia 148: Apr-Jun 2022

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