Four new parties will compete in the 2024 elections. One of them is the revived Labour Party (Partai Buruh), which was established by more than 50 labour unions in 2021.
The core initiator of the party was the Federation of Indonesian Metal Worker Unions (FSPMI), which has 300,000 members. To expand the social base of the party, it has aligned itself with other workers’ groups and social movements, such as those for farmers, informal sector workers, domestic workers, migrant workers, temporary or contract workers, online transportation workers, and the urban poor.
According to Statistics Indonesia, there are more than 135 million workers in Indonesia, 60% of whom work in the informal sector (equivalent to about 80 million people). The Labour Party is hoping it can draw on this broad base to attract the 7 million votes needed to pass the 4% legislative threshold.
Why have unions decided to re-establish a party for workers now? What chance does the new party have of meeting the electoral threshold and securing seats in the national legislature (DPR)?
The long journey to an Indonesian Labour Party
Workers have long been engaged in politics in Indonesia. During the Soekarno era in the 1950s, every political party had an organisational wing for labour. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), in particular, devoted serious efforts to organising workers and farmers.
Things changed dramatically when Soeharto’s New Order regime came to power in 1966. The past efforts of the now outlawed and crushed PKI to organise workers led the Soeharto regime to associate the labour movement with communism. The New Order sought to control the labour movement itself, and by 1985, it had forced all unions to join a state-initiated and state-controlled organisation called the All-Indonesia Workers Union (Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia, SPSI).
Muchtar Pakpahan, a lawyer and labour activist, established an alternative independent union, called the Indonesian Workers Welfare Union (Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia, SBSI) in 1992. These efforts raised the ire of the New Order state, and in 1994, he was sentenced to three years in prison, with authorities accusing him of being behind labour demonstrations that resulted in riots in North Sumatra. He was released in 1995.
Following the fall of Soeharto, Pakpahan established the National Labour Party (Partai Buruh Nasional). The party competed in the first post-Soeharto elections in 1999 but attracted only a tiny proportion of votes. It competed again in 2004, this time under the name of the Social Democratic Labour Party (Partai Buruh Sosial Demokrat, PBSD), and in 2009, as the Labour Party, but was not able to secure any seats. In 2009, it garnered just 0.25% of votes (about 265,000 votes).
The party then remained dormant for more than a decade. During this time, labour activists continued to run as legislative candidates in national, provincial and district/city elections. Because Indonesian electoral laws do not allow candidates to run as independents in legislative elections, they ran through existing parties. For example, Said Iqbal, the current Labour Party leader and former head of the Indonesian Trade Union Confederation (Konfederasi Serikat Pekerja Indonesia, KSPI), previously ran for the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in Batam.
In 2014, nine union activists in Bekasi District ran as part of their union’s “go political” program. With the support of militant union volunteers, two managed to secure seats, Nurdin Muhidin, who ran for the National Mandate Party (PAN), and Nyumarno, who was backed by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). But both struggled to advance labour interests once they were in the legislature, as they were swallowed up by party politics. In the end, Nyumarno ended up closer to PDI-P than he was with his own union. In 2019, both ran again, but only Nyumarno won a seat.
In 2017, in an attempt to avoid party politics, Obon Tabroni, the former head of the Bekasi branch of the FSPMI, ran as an independent candidate for Bekasi district head. Hundreds of union volunteers collected copies of ID cards from eligible voters to ensure he could qualify to run as an independent. He eventually attracted 200,000 votes, but came third, behind incumbent district head, Neneng Hasanah Yasin, and her running mate Eka Supriatmaja, and another candidate pair that included the polemical musician Ahmad Dhani.
In 2019, Obon tried again, this time as a candidate for the national legislature, with the backing of Gerindra. He was successful, securing a seat as a representative for West Java VII electorate. But he has so far failed to make much of an impact on party policy. In fact, Gerindra backed the controversial Omnibus Law on Job Creation (Law No. 11 of 2020), despite vehement opposition from workers and broader civil society.
Obon’s time in the legislature is now seen as lesson for other union activists of the limitations they face in advocating for workers’ rights when they run with the support of established parties.
The Job Creation Law and workers’ rights
Part of the reason union activists have turned to the electoral route is that the old strategies of street demonstrations and negotiations are no longer effective in defending and promoting workers’ rights.
The Job Creation Law is one of the clearest examples of political and business elites’ attempts to increase flexibility in the labour market and encourage foreign investment. The law essentially promotes a cheap labour regime, by weakening minimum wage requirements and social protections and putting pressure on union rights. Under the law, the minimum wage is no longer calculated through a tripartite process involving representatives from business, unions and the government, but is instead decided by the government based on inflation and economic growth.
Massive street demonstrations in multiple cities across Indonesia during late 2020 were not able to prevent the law’s passage – or even win any concessions for workers. Union activists have therefore decided that reviving the Labour Party is their best chance to influence the policymaking process inside the legislative building.
Forming a political party in Indonesia is not cheap or easy. One estimate put the cost at about Rp 50 billion (AU$4.8 million). The Law on Political Parties also dictates that parties must be national in scope, with branch offices in every one of Indonesia’s provinces. Further, within provinces, parties must have branch offices in 75% of all districts, and 50% of all subdistricts. The party structure must also include 30% women in all branches. To compete in an election they must then pass an administrative verification process conducted by the General Elections Commission (KPU).
This is only the first step. To be able to secure seats in the national legislature, parties must win enough votes to exceed the legislative threshold of 4%. The Labour Party has already begun planning how it will meet this target.
It will rely heavily on the union machine, particularly at the factory level (in units known as PUK), and will seek to expand its support among other major social bases, such as farmers, the urban poor, and workers in the informal sector. The party believes it has the best chance of securing votes in the industrial areas of the country, including Banten, West Java, the Riau Islands, and East Java.
To fund campaigning, the party will rely on union membership fees. Compared to other social movements in Indonesia, the labour movement has a relatively solid foundation in terms of membership, organisational structure and funding from which to build.
Although the party has carefully calculated strategies to meet the 4% target, it may struggle to widen its social base. The party rightly points out there are almost 150 million workers in the country, but many may not feel any connection to the Labour Party. The New Order’s efforts to associate the labour movement with communism were so successful that many voters may be reluctant to identify with this long-demonised ideology.
Moreover, the Labour Party may find it difficult to overcome class bias. Many Indonesians associate the labour movement with the lower classes. They may prefer to self-identify as “workers” for the more middle-class associations this involves.
But there is still a whole year before the elections. And the Labour Party is better organised and more committed than its previous attempts, with the sting of the Omnibus Law on Job Creation galvanising the sector. Whether the Labour Party is able to capitalise on this discontent remains to be seen, but it certainly seems determined to try.