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Still an age of activism

Left-wing politics are fragmented, but left-wing ideas are surprisingly influential

Edward Aspinall

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   A tradition of mass action is one of the inheritances from pre-1965 Indonesia
Henri Ismail/Poros Photo

In Indonesia, it sometimes seems that the left is everywhere yet nowhere. Though one rarely hears the word socialism these days (it was sometimes used even by officials during the Suharto period), words that in other countries connote radical or leftist agendas are in Indonesia part of everyday political discourse such as ‘struggle’ (perjuangan), ‘the people’ (rakyat) and so on. And a radically anti-establishment discourse, usually expressed as condemnation of the elite and its ‘games’ (permainan), corruption and ‘manipulation’ (rekayasa), is common currency among a large sector of Indonesia’s activists and wider public opinion.

Yet the organised left is very weak. When the PRD (People’s Democratic Party) – the nearest modern Indonesia has come to having a radical mass-based left-wing political party – contested the national election in 1999, it won less than 0.1 per cent of the vote. Since that time the party has splintered, with many of its former activists abandoning it either to join mainstream parties or to found small activist groups of their own.

However, a broad left is visible in the domain of civil society. There is a tremendous profusion of people’s organisations, trade unions and farmer groups and a multiplicity of small – sometimes tiny – organisations that campaign for the rights of this or

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