New Left Challenge in Indonesia

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Almost ten years ago the brutal Suharto regime in Indonesia was swept away by a tide of social and political unrest following the economic crisis of 1998.

Four presidents and several corruption scandals later, life is still a struggle for the majority of Indonesians in a country where the majority live on less than $1 a day.

Suharto signed a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1997. Every president since has continued to adhere to the IMF's dictates, bringing misery to most Indonesians. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's latest president, is no exception. Last October his government increased retail prices for fuel by over 100 percent, and for kerosene - the fuel used by most poor families - by 300 percent.

Yudhoyono has not had an easy time in office. Long running separatist conflicts in Kalimantan and Sulawesi, and new ones in West Papua among others, have again raised questions about the role of the TNI, Indonesia's military, in political life. There has also been much criticism of the government's response to the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of northern Sumatra in late 2004, and the earthquake that struck the city of Yogyakarta last May. And in the past year there have been widespread protests against the fuel price hikes, and over environmental issues as well as regional concerns including local elections, political autonomy, separatist movements and abuses by Polri, the national police force.

While the sheer diversity of these movements has been impressive, a particular feature of social and political protests since the fall of Suharto has been its fragmentation. There is no real national network to link together the many hundreds of different activist groups, most of which are semi-permanent, fragile or isolated from wider struggles. And when such networks do emerge, they are often very loose and devoid of any real authority.

The hope is that this will now change with the launch of Papernas, the National Liberation Party of Unity, to stand in the national elections of 2009. "Up until now there has yet to be a party that can unite the ordinary people, the urban poor," said Papernas chair Dominggus Oktavianus Kiik. Over a thousand people packed the national library of Indonesia for the party's launch in July. Since then Papernas has been attracting the attention of activists from a range of different backgrounds.

Reaching out

Initiated by the People's Democratic Party (PRD), a radical left party whose current chair is the well known labour rights and democracy activist Dita Sari, Papernas is set to hold its founding congress in November or early December. Its establishment follows similar attempts by PRD to set up parliamentary opposition to the parties of the political and business elite in recent years.

PRD, which itself played a leading role in the struggle to overthrow the Suharto dictatorship, stood for national elections in 1999. In that instance, the party was overshadowed by the elite parties scrambling for political power, and failed to capitalise on a groundswell of support in its favour. In 2004 the party helped form the Party of Popular Opposition (Popor), an alliance of PRD and other pro-democracy groups. Formed just a few months before the elections, however, Popor was unable to meet stringent requirements to be registered and have its candidates on the ballot.

The strategy adopted by Papernas appears to have both those electoral requirements and the fragmentation of socio-political movements in mind. In the first instance, by reaching out to people beyond its own ranks and traditional supporters, Papernas aims to overcome electoral regulations that make it difficult for new parties to stand in elections. Papernas seems set to start with branches in most of the major islands that make up the country, and there remains the possibility of alliances with many other activist groups.

The decision to launch Papernas now, almost three years before elections, is aimed at uniting wider social forces not limited to PRD. Indeed, the party's stance of campaigning for what is being called the "Tri Panji" (Three Banners) of struggle - repudiation of foreign debt, nationalisation of the oil, gas and electricity industries, and implementation of a national, planned industrialisation programme - is aimed at building the party outwards.

Papernas is already attracting both high profile and grassroots support. But it is unlikely to be the only party of its kind come 2009. Several left NGOs are also moving to establish a party that can participate in the 2009 elections, while elite parties are also trying to incorporate activists from the movements. In such a scenario, the potential of a mass movement around Papernas and led by PRD becomes ever more urgent.