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

AuthorMahsun, Muhammad

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. The organization then went on to advocate the formation of such blocs in 15 regions as a pilot project. (10)

This article supports this more optimistic interpretation of local politics by analyzing the engagement by a peasant movement in the 2011 and 2017 district head elections in Batang, Central Java. In a movement which peasant activists dubbed "go politics", a social movement based among farmers supplemented its past repertoire of protest activities with a move into electoral politics. The movement came to play a significant electoral role. Coordinated by an organization called Omah Tani (The Farmers' House), it strove to form a "democratic political bloc" under the inspiration of the Demos initiative mentioned above, and in so doing, resolve the critical problem of democratic popular representation, which Olle Tornquist argues has bedevilled Indonesian democracy since the transition from authoritarian rule began two decades ago. (11) Omah Tani supported the nomination of an alternative candidate, Yoyok Riyo Sudibyo, who won election as Batang's district head (bupati) in 2011. As a result of this success, farmers had access to local executive government for the first time, and in alliance with an array of liberal reformers, they used this access to push forward a process of local agrarian reform, improve governance and counter the influence of local predators.

However, the movement had difficulty capitalizing on this success and maintaining its momentum. Its champion, Bupati Yoyok, had his eyes set on higher office and did not run for re-election in 2017, causing disorientation in the peasant movement which was unable to come up with a replacement candidate. Thus rather than representing an unadulterated triumph of popular agency and grassroots politics, the outcome of the Batang experiment suggests that participation by grassroots movements in local politics in contemporary Indonesia involves complex coalitions with liberal and establishment political forces. The Batang experience was an experiment in political hybridization, combining elements of conventional and grassroots politics, clientelistic and programmatic delivery. This hybridization limited the ability for this experience to be either sustained or scaled up. Nevertheless, it is important to analyse experiences such as those in Batang in order to provide concrete examples of successful popular agency in Indonesian local electoral politics and to derive lessons about how to construct more democratic local governance.

Peasant Movements and the Rise of Popular Politics in Batang

Batang is a rural district on the north coast of Central Java, with a population of approximately 740,000. About 166,000 residents, or 38 per cent of the total labour force, work in agriculture and plantations. About 83,000 are classified as poor. (12) The population is overwhelmingly ethnically Javanese and Islamic, with most practising the syncretic or abangan variant of Javanese Islam. (13) Many of the population express sympathy with Marhaenism, the old egalitarian-populist ideology espoused by Indonesia's first president Sukarno, and many have family connections with former members of the now-banned Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party, PKI), which was very strong in Batang before the rise of the New Order regime in 1965-66. (14)

Both rice farmers and plantation workers in Batang have a long history of conflicts over land, both with private and state-owned companies. Most of these conflicts date back to the New Order period (1966-98), typically involving land that was provided to plantations or other business interests by the state, contravening what local farmers believed were their long-established usage rights. Conflicts that in some cases stretched over decades was the context for the emergence of various local peasant organizations in the district. These had their origins in the late Soeharto years, but they began to emerge openly after his downfall in 1998, at a time when many such groups were being formed around the country. (15) The most important is Omah Tani, a coordinating organization that is based in the village of Tumbreb in Bandar subdistrict. Founded in 1998, Omah Tani is an umbrella organization for some 34 local-level farmer organizations scattered through a majority of Batang's subdistricts. In 2017, a total of some 20,000 households were registered as Omah Tani members.

When it was founded in 1998, the organization was called the Forum Perjuangan Petani Batang (Struggle Forum of Batang Farmers, FPPB). Its members, however, were not just farmers who worked in wet-rice fields (sawah), dry fields (ladang) and plantations (producing crops such as cloves, tea and teak), but also fishers who lived along the northern coast of the district and who were experiencing land conflicts of their own. Over time, the organization also attracted affiliates in the neighbouring district of Pekalongan, so much so that in the year 2000 FPPB briefly changed its name to Forum Paguyuban Petani Nelayan Batang Pekalongan (Forum of Associations of Farmers and Fishers of Batang and Pekalongan, FP2NBP) before reverting to its original name. At first, much of the organization's activity focused on attempts by local farmers to gain formal titles to unused state lands, using such methods as street protests and land occupations. From 2007 the organization also began to engage in court challenges and negotiations, progressively gaining a series of local victories by which blocks of land, sometimes amounting to several hundred hectares in total, were handed out under certificates to farmers. (16)

In 2008, the organization experienced an internal conflict, triggered when some of its leaders--supported by university graduates from the city of Yogyakarta who had been helping the...

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