Will trade union electoral support empower workers, or make them a political tool?

BBC Indonesia – May 2, 2018
Prabowo and Said Iqbal at Senyan Sports Arena - May 1, 2018 (Antara)
Prabowo and Said Iqbal at Senyan Sports Arena - May 1, 2018 (Antara)

Abraham Utama – Prabowo Subianto has preempted President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in embracing labour groups in the lead up to the 2019 presidential elections.

At a declaration in Jakarta during the commemoration on International Labour Day on May 1, the candidate from the Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) obtained the support of the Indonesian Trade Union confederation (KPSI) for his presidential bid.

Gerindra central leadership board deputy chairperson Arief Puyouno says that the agreement between the KSPI will lock in at least 25 million votes for Prabowo or around 35 percent of the total vote target being touted by Prabowo to win the presidential election.

“Workers will campaign for Prabowo as a presidential candidate, even before he registers with the KPU [General Elections Commission]”, said Puyouno by phone on Wednesday May 2.

KSPI president Said Iqbal meanwhile says that the members of his confederation number 2.2 million and if the members of workers’ families are counted Iqbal calculates that his union can contribute 5.5 million votes to Prabowo.

Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) politician Masinton Pasaribu however believes that the projections of a Prabowo win on the back of the labour vote is exaggerated.

Based on what happened in 2014 presidential elections, Pasaribu is certain that the huge KSPI declaration of support for Prabowo will not guarantee a Prabowo victory. This is because it is uncertain if the political contract between the KSPI and Prabowo will filter down to the grass roots.

“The declaration of support was the leadership’s initiative, it doesn’t reflect workers’ [wishes] as a whole”, he said.

“Workers are voters who are politically literate, they know where they must channel their aspirations, even if the trade union leadership directs them [to vote for] a specific candidates”, said Pasaribu.

Gerindra claimed that in the 2014 elections Prabowo beat Widodo in areas where there is a worker base. Puyouno noted that Prabowo garnered many votes in the plantation centres of North Sumatra, Riau and West Kalimantan as well as the industrial zones in Banten (West Java) and East Java.

In addition to the KSPI, in 2014 Prabowo also received the support of the All Indonesia Trade Union Confederation (KSPSI) Yorrys Raweyay leadership, a politician from the Golkar Party.

Widodo meanwhile was backed by the Andi Gani Nena Wea leadership of the KSPSI along with the Confederation of Prosperity Labour Unions (KSBSI), which was led by Mudhofir Khamid. Later on, after Widodo was elected, both were given positions in state-owned enterprises.

Wea was given the seat of president commissioner and independent commissioner at the state housing company PT Pembangunan Perumahan (Persero) while Khamid became the commissioner of the state postal company PT Pos Indonesia (Persero).

Double edged sward

Since the political reform era which began with Suharto’s overthrow in 1998, labour parties have taken part in all of the elections except in 2014 when the phenomena of declaring trade union support for presidential candidates first emerged.

In the 1999 general elections, there was the Labour Party (Partai Buruh, PBI), the Indonesian Workers’ Party (Partai Pekerja Indonesia, PPI), the Workers’ Solidarity Party (Partai Solidaritas Pekerja, PSP) and the All Indonesia Workers Solidarity Party (Partai Solidaritas Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia, PSPSI).

Four years later the Social Democrat Labour Party (Partai Buruh Sosial Demokrat, PBSI) emerged and in the 2009 general elections there was the Indonesian Workers and Employers Party (Partai Pengusaha dan Pekerja Indonesia, PPPI) and the PBI.

Out of all these vehicles, there has not been a single representative from a labour based party which has succeeded in getting a seat in the House of Representatives (DPR).

According to University of Airlangga labour expert Hadi Subhan this represents a failure on the part of these parties as representatives of workers’ interests.

“There is a great deal of disparity among workers. It’s impossible for a political party to reflect workers’ [interests]”, said Subhan when contacted from Jakarta.

What is happening at the moment, said Subhan, is that the trade union and confederation leaderships are using the labour movement to move closer to political figures.

And this phenomena isn’t just occurring in Jakarta but in almost all regions, so, asserted Subhan, “The public isn’t sympathetic, workers are seen as partisan, political tools”.

“Workers are a concrete group, they have a single interest so they’re easily mobilised and used by certain groups”, said Subhan.

Political party interests

Not wanting to be ground down by the tide of political party interests, the Populist Democratic Trade Union (SEDAR) has elected to remain independent and is not supporting Prabowo or Widodo in the great march towards the 2019 presidential elections.

“Our goal is to build an alternative political force, our members are not just workers but people from other groups”, said SEDAR spokesperson Sarinah.

Quoting from the labour movement’s philosophical basis, which applies all over the world, Sarinah says that trade unions stand above religious, ethnic and racial differences and other tendencies.

This value, added Sarinah, is in conflict with the political constellation in Indonesia, particularly following the divisive 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections, which are seen as ridden with primordial issues.

“The concept of a labour movement is internationalism, not seeing differences. This is why we don’t support any of the candidates. It would destroy workers’ consistency. We would be fighting with one another”, she said.

The question is, is this discourse realistic?

Sarinah relates how the tradition of paying trade union dues among workers could provide a fixed capital for a labour party, money which up until now has been able to fund numerous demonstrations as well as trade union secretariat offices.

“A labour party must emerge out of the labour movement. Up until now [labour parties] have been artificial, emerging not from a mass movement, not from below”, said Sarinah.

Nevertheless, Subhan believes that workers do not actually have to articulate their interests though a political party because the large number of workers in fact makes then venerable to being use simply as a political tool.

“What’s important is unity between trade unions. In the past they have united and eventually gave birth to the BPJS [Social Security Management Agency”, said Subhan.

Based on data from the Department of Home Affairs, the number of voters eligible to participate in the 2019 legislative and presidential elections is as high as 196.5 million people. Meanwhile according to the National Statistics Agency (BPS), Indonesia’s total working population stands at 131.5 million.

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was Buruh dan calon presiden: diperdaya atau menggalang politik?.]

Source: http://www.bbc.com/indonesia/indonesia-43977922?SThisFB