Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Peasants and Politics: Achievements and Limits of Popular Agency in Batang, Central Java

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Peasants and Politics: Achievements and Limits of Popular Agency in Batang, Central Java

Article excerpt

At the outset of the twenty-first century--and after having been consigned to history by many observers--peasant movements began to profoundly impact democratic politics in several developing nations. Above all, in Latin American countries including Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and Peru, peasant-based social movements challenged ruling parties and dominant elites, promoted agrarian reform, endeavoured to change economic structures and engaged actively in electoral politics. (1) Famously, the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement for Socialism, MAS), a movement founded as an alliance of indigenous coca farmers, succeeded in having Evo Morales elected as president of Bolivia in 2006. (2) In Brazil, the Partido Trabalhadores (Workers' Party, PT), came to power in 2002 as an alliance of labour unions, the urban poor, and left-wing intellectuals, but also drew on support of rural movements such as the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers' Movement, MST).

In Indonesia, there has been nothing approaching the scale of Latin American rural politicization. Nevertheless, over the past decade or so of electoral politics, there have been signs of engagement by popular movements based among farmers and, especially, workers in electoral politics. Such signs have thus far been visible mostly in provincial and, especially, district elections, and have seen some victories by candidates representing lower-class groups, especially in legislative elections where it is possible, under Indonesia's proportional representation system, to gain seats by winning only a small slice of the electorate. (3) For example, Amalinda Savirani's study of the 2014 legislative election in Bekasi, West Java, showed that two out of the five labour union candidates who stood won their seats. (4) A study of village head elections in Batang, Central Java, in 2007 detailed how activists from a local peasants' movement won nine out of the ten elections in which they competed. (5) Though such experiences hardly amount to an electoral wave, they do suggest we need to take electoral engagement by social movements representing disenfranchised groups seriously.

This article takes up that challenge by focusing on one of the more successful cases of electoral engagement by social movements, that of the peasant movement in Batang, Central Java. In doing so, it provides a different perspective to the mainstream interpretation of local democracy in contemporary Indonesia. The dominant view is that democratization has largely stalled as a result of the capture of decentralized structures of power by local oligarchs and predatory elites. (6) This oligarchic dominance has, so this interpretation goes, largely forestalled the ability of grassroots civil society forces to effectively challenge elite control. There is no denying that we can find much evidence to support this "oligarchy thesis". Politics in many regions has been dominated by local oligarchs and predators, especially early in the reformasi period.

However, as Edward Aspinall has argued, this thesis also misses many instances of popular agency, and pessimistically rules out the possibility of change. (7) Even if political institutions have, on the whole, been captured by predators, there is also much evidence of policy lobbying and electoral mobilization by grassroots movements. Since the early 2000s, decentralization has allowed labour and peasant leaders to learn that it is possible to engage in contestation for governmental power and affect public policy through democratic means. (8) Accordingly, scholars such as Aspinall, Surya Tjandra and Michele Ford have discerned reasons for optimism in the democratic potential of local politics. (9) Likewise, one large research effort, coordinated from 2007 by the Jakarta-based research institute Demos, under the guidance of the Oslo-based academic Olle Tornquist, analysed the limitations of local-level democracy in Indonesia and proposed as a solution the creation of local "democratic political blocs" (blok politik demokratik) involving coalitions among workers, farmers and other democratic groups. …

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