A small new party is sticking to its ideological guns but will probably not make much of a dent in the established elite’s stranglehold on Indonesia’s electoral politics.
The scramble for alignments among Indonesia’s political parties continues. Some parties have already joined coalitions, others are still assessing which of the existing three coalitions supporting the frontrunner presidential candidates have the best chance to win or what deal can be done with them.
At this point, none of the three most likely candidates – Ganjar Pranowo, from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Prabowo Subianto, chairperson of Gerindra, and Anies Baswedan, nominated by the Democrat Party (PD), the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the Nasional Democrats (NasDem) – has announced a vice-presidential candidate.
As has been the case for almost 20 years now, in Indonesia’s four previous direct presidential elections, in the scramble to secure a coalition with the highest “elektabilitas” (electability), there is general agreement on fundamental policies of economic, political and social development. Everybody is willing and able to dialogue with everybody else. Rival candidates – such as Prabowo and Ganjar – even talk about each other as possible partners. Even erstwhile hostile parties – the hostility due to personal reasons – such as PD and PDI-P can start talking to each other: while in Saudi Arabia for their pilgrimage, PDI-P’s Puan Maharani and Anies Baswedan took a photo opportunity together. The rivalry is real – for the president of the club of elite politicians to which everybody belongs.
The coalition that supports Anies Baswedan calls itself the coalition for “Change”. Sometimes on television, for example, it counterposes itself to the other two coalitions who have proclaimed that they support continuity with President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) policies. PDI-P figures have stated that they see Baswedan as the antithesis of Jokowi. The closest Baswedan got to giving a concrete example of how he is the antithesis of Widodo is to criticise the current president for not building more national non-toll roads, claiming that Widodo focused more on building paid toll roads that benefited only certain people and groups.
Two of the three parties supporting Anies earlier this year withdrew their support for the Job Creation Law, after the government decreed the Law into existence and then sought parliamentary legitimation. However, the largest party of the “Change Coalition”, NasDem, has always supported the Job Creation Law. NasDem, when it nominated Anies Baswedan as its preferred presidential candidate, stated that Anies would also continue with President Widodo’s policies. However, while these parties vote the same way in parliament on all substantial economic and other issues, they are still real rivals to win the maximum seats in parliament (in the legislative elections), which will be the true measure of each party’s bargaining position later on.
This opposition has included stating that Partai Buruh will not enter any coalition with parties that support the Job Creation Law nor support any presidential candidate who is for the Law.
Actual criticisms of government policies come from outside the parties, from civil society.
The Labour Party’s (Partai Buruh, PB) electoral support is still untested since 2024 will be the first time it can put up legislative candidates for election. However, its press and social media presence has been sufficient to justify its claim to be a new player on the political scene. The fundamental significance of the PB’s emergence is that it, at least partially, manifests the first serious attempt of civil society to enter the electoral arena.
The reason for concluding that this perhaps represents only partially a civil society phenomenon is that central figures in the process, in particular PB President Said Iqbal, have been players in mainstream elite politics for some time. As President of the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions (KPSI) in two elections, Said Iqbal campaigned in support of Prabowo Subianto. However, the PB has been able to draw in local-level trade union officials, including from outside the KPSI, as well as activists and intellectuals associated with other trade unions and civil society groups. Much of these have been drawn in by the oppositional policy campaigns of the Komite Politik (Political Committee) associated with another trade union federation, the Confederation of United Indonesian Workers (KPBI). However, those unions historically most associated with union and pro-democratic militancy are still staying away.
The PB has opposed the Job Creation Law, which trade unions and civil society groups see as stripping protections for labour, farmers, and the environment. Despite PB figures sometimes seeming to curry favour with mainstream political figures, including the PDI-P’s presidential candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, the party has remained resolute to date in its stance against this Law.
This opposition has included stating that Partai Buruh will not enter any coalition with parties that support the Job Creation Law nor support any presidential candidate who is for the Law. The second part of PB’s declaration can be seen as an indirect call for people to abstain from voting, which can be of some significance. Its significance is not that the PB’s stance will significantly increase the 20 per cent of abstention votes cast at the last (2019) election in 2024, but rather that it sets a new precedent of a registered electoral party, which is receiving significant media coverage, dissociating itself from the ruling “club” of mainstream political parties. Whatever happens to this particular manifestation of critical civil society entering the electoral arena, such attempts are bound to continue.
Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of “An Introduction to the Politics of the Indonesian Union Movement” (ISEAS 2019) and the editor of “Continuity and Change after Indonesia’s Reforms: Contributions to an Ongoing Assessment” (ISEAS 2019). His newest book is “Indonesia Out of Exile: How Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet Killed a Dictatorship”, (Penguin Random House, 2022).