Is selling a political party like selling a ship?

Kompas – August 8, 2006
Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia Party pioneer Sys NS (Kompas)
Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia Party pioneer Sys NS (Kompas)

Windoro Adi – It was just like the good old days when on the afternoon of Friday July 28, RMH Heroe Syswanto NS Soerio Soebagio, who is affectionately called Sys NS, appeared once again in an event at a hotel in Jakarta. Smelling seat, looking fetching and escorted by a young woman, he still prefers to appear in the style of a celebrity even though it was a political affair.

During the event, he introduced an embryonic political party that he has pioneered along with 186 others, called the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia Party (P-NKRI)1. A number of activists were present as well as politicians from the Democrat Party, the Golkar Party and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

After giving a number of interviews, he asked for comments and criticisms and led a discussion about the expectations of experts, political observers and the public with regard to the P-NKRI and Sys NS himself.

Political observer Sukardi Rinakit who was present as one of the speakers advised Sys and his party to use local symbols and language if it wants to quickly become known and accepted by the public. According to Rinakit, political consumers are divided in their tastes, as is the case with consumers in a free market. It is impossible for a political party to hope to be able to win votes from every single consumer.

Another speaker, the deputy executive director of the Indonesian Survey Circle, Mohammad Qodari, said that the P-NKRI had a clear category of political consumers, youth. “If it is to base itself on consumers’ needs, the P-NKRI must concentrate its attention on issues of education and recreation, because this is what the young people who will become the P-NKRI’s choice of political consumers want”, said Qodari. Sys agreed.

The United People’s Party (PPR) pioneered by Muspani, a grassroots figure from Bengkulu, and the National Liberation Party of Unity (Papernas) that is in the process of being formed by youth activists such as Dita Indah Sari, are looking to a different category of consumers. The PPR has chosen to prioritise the constituency in rural areas and the interior, particularly farmers, while Papernas is targeting workers, farmers and students.

Although the three are categorised as nationalist political parties, the PPR and Papernas are choosing to target a constituency from the middle to lower socio-economic group, while P-NKRI has chosen to aim at a constituency from the urban middle-class.

‘Dugem’ and mud

Sys explained that the P-NKRI is indeed targeting young voters who currently total as much as 20 percent of the total number of voters nationally. The problem is that youth voters have an apolitical attitude. Because of this therefore, in order to attract their support, a package is needed that is in accordance with their world.

Sys then gave an interpretation of the P-NKRI as being a young people’s “funky” party and began serving up political chit-chat that appeared originate from any old source, full of uniquely youthful jokes that were packaged for consumption by cosmopolitan youth who are undoubtedly part of ‘dugem’2.

The PPR is different again. A political party that has build a network among farmer groups and local non-government organisations, including legal aid foundations, it prefers to “wallow in the mud” with farmers and villagers to struggle over local issues including conducting advocacy and mobilising protests. A cultural approach through developing traditional art events as well as self-defence is also being used.

“We established a political party to erase the stigma that were are only provocateurs, rioters, [that we] don’t care about the country, are selling our nation’s self-respect and have no [sense of] nationalism. Whereas we are only conducting political education for farmers and local people. We have never taught or practiced violence. [But we] have often been the victims of violence”, said Muspani with a grin.

It is not surprising therefore if the party is not too concerned with gaining seats in the legislative elections, the election of regional heads or winning the presidential elections. “We have referred all of this to our friends in the regions. If they want the PPR to participate in the 2009 legislative elections. Yeah fine. But don’t dream about victory. Just try it first”, said a member of the Bengkulu Regional House of Representatives who was contacted on Tuesday August 1.

This is different from the spirit of Papernas activists who are fired up with the desire to win quick victories in the elections as though they are not intimidated by the failures they experienced in the last elections when the founders of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD/1999) and the Party of United Popular Opposition (Popor/2003) returned to the political stage targeting the same constituency.

According to the general chairperson of the Papernas Preparatory Committee, Dominggus Oktavianus Tobu Kiik, their earlier failures were not because of an error in the choice of their target constituency, but rather because of the various weaknesses of their parties. Papernas’ chances this time are far better. We have also learnt from our mistakes”, said Dominggus last Thursday.

This time round, Papernas has obtained support from and has built networks with farmer organisations, workers and students, activists as well as the urban poor. A number of organisations have declared that they will support Papernas including the National Student League for Democracy (LMND), the PRD, the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggle (FNPBI), the National Farmers Union (STN), the Indonesian Automotive Trade Union (SPOI), the Indonesian Transportation Trade Union for Struggle (SBTPI) as well as the Papernas Trade Union Federation (GSPP).

Dominggus expressed optimism that Papernas’ position in the 2009 general elections will be better that of the PRD or Popor. “The public needs a new hope from a new party as was reflected in the victories of the Democratic Party and the Justice and Prosperity Party3”, he said.

The party has taken up the slogan “Free from foreign domination” under their three banners of national unity: “Abolish the foreign debt, take over the mining industries and resurrect the national industry”.

One of Papernas’ founders, Iwan, conceded that Papernas had drawn part of its “fire” of struggle from Latin America. And this cannot be separated from the voice of the majority from Papernas’ trade union supporters and networks.

If you want to look more closely at what the similarity are between the three parties, well there is only one, they are all equally prepared to give it a shot.


University of Indonesia sociologist Imam Prasodjo and Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) political observer Ikrar Nusa Bhakti expressed their surprise at the emergence of these three new political parties. They say that current conditions have almost closed any opportunity for new political parties to get any votes, moreover to even pass the threshold. “Just taking 10 percent of the votes obtained by the PDI-P or Golkar would be remarkable”, said Bhakti.

Prasodjo has made a similar observation saying that in the future the situation for the existing political parties will increasingly be one of growth and decline, both among nationalist as well as religious based political parties. “Within nationalist circles, the ones that remain popular are only the PDI-P and Golkar, while in religious circles, the ones that are still considered capable of articulating their [the people’s] wishes are the PKB (National Awakening Party), PAN (National Mandate Party) and the PKS (Justice and Prosperity and Party). The Democrat (Party) and PPP (United Development Party) have increasingly declined because they are incapable of managing the public’s emotions and carrying out their function as a political party”, said Prasodjo.

Nationalist parties have a basis among the floating masses while the religious parties have a bases among the mass organisations that support them such as PAN and its Muhammadiyah (Indonesia’s second largest Islamic mass organisation). The PKB and its pocket of supporters in the pesantrens (traditional Islamic boarding schools) along with the PKS that relies on the educated middle class.

In order to win votes, these political parties are still depending on the charisma of their leaders although this has begun to be accompanied with their capacity to build networks. “The only one that is relatively stable and even experiencing advances is the PKS”, he said. “Nevertheless, even this political party is experiencing a slump in its [vote getting] performance”, he continued.

Bhakti agreed. “The PKS has started to become inconsistent and started to appear as if it only want’s to sell an image. Look at their political position with regard to the fuel price increases”, he asserted.

Prasodjo is of the view that these new political parties can expect to obtain a better vote if the public becomes fed up with or sick of the old political parities. “If things remain in a state of status quo, at most they will only get a scattering of votes from the big political parties and this could mean that they fail to obtain seats in parliament, or even to pass the threshold outright”, he said.

Prasodjo is not convinced that the new political parties are capable of building the emotional or functional strength, which he said aims to build public trust in the relevant political party. Emotional strength said Prasodjo, is built through action or their charismatic leaders, while functional strength is based on the performance of the political parties cadre, particularly in building networks.

“Take the Golkar Party for example. This political party has actually not been too successful in developing emotional strength, but the party is still superior in building its functional strengths”, said Prasodjo.

Prasodjo is of the view that it is not yet certain if efforts to build class-consciousness among the poor will become a ‘glue’ for the poor. “It was different with Karl Marx. He astutely developed a contrasting relationship between labour and capital. But now, it is only limited to the term Marhaenism4. It’s too superficial”, he said.

According to Prasodjo, the only thing that can be done by the new political parties in order to be successful is to build networks because they do not have sufficient charismatic national figures.

Prasodjo estimates that it will still be 10 years before these new parties will be able to reach the target of being a “merchant ship” (another term for political vehicle) for pairs of candidates that participate in the election of regional heads, providing voting services for the large political parties or partners in a coalition of political parties.

Bhakti disagreed. “Don’t forget, the victory of a pair of candidates in the election of regional heads or a presidential election is not determined by the political vehicle or the ‘ship’ they use, but is based more on the success of the non-party campaign team of the candidates in projecting their image. What is sold is the leadership figure who is assisted in projecting their image by their campaign team”, he said.

So continued the political researcher from LIPI, the process is exactly like a producer offering their trading goods. In presidential elections and the election of regional heads, money is not in fact the determining factor for political parties. This is different with the legislative elections. “Nevertheless, political parties need money to maintain their ‘ship’ so that it is suitable for use”, said Bhakti


1. NKRI – Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia, the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. A term which is often used in the context of nationalism and the desire to maintain the integrity of the Indonesian nation.

2. Dugem – Dunia Gemerlap, glittering world. Going to cafes at night and listening to live music.

3. The term Marhaenism (Marhaenisme) was coined by Sukarno, the founding president of Indonesia. It was derived from the name of a poor farmer, Marhaen, who Sukarno is reputed to have met in the Priangan highlands near Bogor, West Java – a “wong cilik” or “little person” who owned their own means of production but did not become an evil capitalist (i.e. petty bourgeois).

4. The Democrat Party (of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) and the Islamic based Justice and Prosperity Party both made big gains in the 2006 legislative elections dispute having not significant mass base of support. This was largely due to being able to project an image of being “clean” and the public’s dissatisfaction with large parties such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle that traditionally appealed to the interests of ordinary people.

[Translated by James Balowski.]