Indonesia’s predatory politics neuter former activists’ attempts at reform from within the system

Indonesia’s former president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (left), and current president, Joko Widodo, had activists and scholars supporting their presidential campaigns. Many of them have since been given special staff positions in the administration. Adi Weda/EPA

Indonesia’s predatory politics neuter former activists’ attempts at reform from within the system

Two decades of democratisation in Indonesia has been marked by the presence of former civil society activists in formal politics. The activists come from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or were student protesters and progressive scholars.

After the 1998 Reformasi movement toppled the authoritarian Soeharto, civil society activists began to change their strategy. They aimed to reform the political, economic and social conditions of Indonesia from within, replacing the old “struggle from outside” strategy.

Many former activists joined the dominant political parties to be a parliament member or a local leader. Some have been appointed as state officials or commissioners of state-owned enterprises. Most of them who are now in formal offices hold the position as special staff - a loose position in terms of employment status, function, career and financial incentives - in political parties, the parliament or government offices.

Activists and scholars who supported Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in the 2014 election have also been appointed as state officials, primarily at the Presidential Staff Office (KSP), or on the boards of commissioners of state-owned companies. This practice was similar under the administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi’s predecessor.

Some activists have also joined one of Indonesia’s new political parties, Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI). Dubbed the “millennial party” and headed by a former TV anchor supported by young party members, they too aspire to make changes from within.

However, the presence of former activists in formal politics has failed to bring fundamental changes to improve the quality of democracy. This applies particularly to human rights, public services and corruption, according to studies published in Indonesia’s sociopolitical journal Prisma.

Failed to push for reforms

Democracy for the last two decades has been substantially illiberalised, moving away from liberal democratic principles characterised mainly by the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

We can see this happening in the normalisation of corruption and money politics, increasing violence and discrimination against minority groups, rising conflicts in the agrarian sector, and even the rise of identity politics and vigilantism.

From “within the system”, the former activists have not been able to urge the government to resolve fairly old cases of human rights and state violence. This includes violence and killings of students during the 1998 protests - even though some of them or their colleagues were victims.

We also do not know how former activists contribute to improving the performance of state-owned businesses. Some of these have suffered record losses.

Why does this happen?

Scholars who try to explain why activists have not managed to bring change from within the system predominantly emphasise the role of the contending political actors in the state arena. Some argue that oligarchic forces and the “old guard” in the political arena continually attempt to block any reform agenda that threatens their interests.

Others observe that while these old forces continue to protect their interests, pro-democratic actors are unconsolidated and weak in their challenge against them. Accordingly, these studies suggest there is a need to strengthen the capacity and networks of pro-democratic actors in the state arena before substantial changes can be achieved.

But we argue that the entrenched practices of political transactionalism (horse-trading among contending political elites for power and resources) and corruption, and not solely the presence of non-democratic actors, cause the failure of many reform agendas. Stressing the role of actors ignores the fact that political predatorism, or control over public institutions for private accumulation, has indeed been institutionalised in the bureaucracy and continuously reproduced by elites who have benefited from this.

Even those who are defined as reformists benefit from conforming and adjusting with predatorism. When, for example, Jokowi issued a law on mass organisation (Perppu Ormas) that neglects the due process of law in disbanding organisations, activists in the Presidential Staff Office were in the front line supporting this regulation.

Former radical activists such as legislators Budiman Sudjatmiko of the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and Desmond Mahesa of the Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party are almost indistinguishable from other opportunist politicians. They tend to represent the interests of their political party or political patron, instead of marginalised citizens.

Many former activists who hold positions as special staff have weak bargaining powers to negotiate with their patrons and the broader political system. They did nothing to stop the passing of the controversial Legislative Institutions Law (MD3 Law) that silences criticism of parliament members.

This is possibly because most of the former activists do not have strong social bases or represent certain social movements. As politicians, they might have a constituency, but it is only meant for gathering votes during elections.

This situation signifies the nature of Indonesian democracy for the last two decades, arising from the absence of organised progressive movements since the 1965 massacre of communists.

During the New Order, the military regime not only suppressed but also domesticated any potential political challenges. Soeharto implemented the “floating mass” policy by restricting mass-based politics and detaching political parties from their constituencies.

This historical process has destroyed society’s capability to organise citizens. Instead of being able to channel their demands and interests, they have been chronically disorganised and apolitical.

Additionally, although the authoritarian regime has fallen, a narrative about the threat of communism is continuously reproduced. This is used to limit any attempt to organise a serious challenge to predatory politics.

We see this in the recent arrest of environmental activist Budi Pego. He was arrested under the anti-communist law due to his opposition to the exploitation of Mount Tumpang Pitu in Banyuwangi East Java. Labour and peasant union movements have also been constantly undermined by the use of labels such as neo-communism.

Since civil society is extremely disorganised, politicians rely on money politics, violence and identity politics to mobilise votes. As a result, corruption becomes a chronic problem. It drives the practices of many political-economic actors in the state arena.

In addition, the increase in political mobilisation using religious sentiments has exacerbated discrimination against minority groups and vigilantism.

Before 1965, peasants and labourers were able to organise themselves as a movement that was relatively autonomous from political parties, including the Communist Party. Through unions they could negotiate with political-economic elites to further their interests. The welfare state regime in European countries that provides social security to citizens is also a result of the struggle by organised leftist movements.

Lack of organised progressive movements

The lack of organised progressive movements explains many of the problems of the failed reforms. These are not merely the result of institutional issues or inadequate challenges by reformist actors to oligarchic forces.

This situation has paved the way for the institutionalisation of political transactionalism and corruption, blocking any attempt to implement reforms. Entering the state arena and mainstream politics without political backup from organised movements will only result in pro-democratic activists being absorbed by the black holes of the Indonesian political system: predatory practices.