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Jakarta Post

Indonesia'€™s election and emergency activism

  • Intan Paramaditha

    The Jakarta Post

New York   /   Thu, August 14, 2014   /  11:00 am

The heightened political engagement of citizens, as many have noticed, was one of the main factors that made the 2014 presidential election incredibly vibrant, urgent and thrilling.

Having voted in New York instead of my hometown of Jakarta, I was moved to see images of fellow civilians, without affiliations to any political party, tirelessly contributing their time and money to support Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo in the most creative ways.

But how do we make sense of this '€œnew'€ relawan (volunteer) figure? Is s/he a marker of a new (sudden?) political awareness incited by Jokowi'€™s exceptional status? Or has s/he been around all this time?

Voluntary public initiatives as a form of political engagement are not completely novel. The relawan figure must in fact be historicized within the context of new practices of citizenship after the fall of Soeharto'€™s dictatorship.

In less than two decades since Reformasi (reformation) in 1998, Indonesians have been trained to respond collectively and immediately to urgent situations. We have developed survival skills and tactics as '€œemergency activists'€.

Analysts have correctly pointed out that Jokowi attracted support due to his humble, populist persona as a new leader with no direct connections to the Soeharto regime. Yet, one could not underestimate the '€œemergency'€ dimension of the presidential election and its capacity to mobilize people.

A few months before the election, activists and families of missing victims of suspected past human rights abuses, under the Coalition Against Forgetting Movement, protested the General Elections Commission'€™s (KPU) decision to approve the candidacy of Prabowo Subianto despite his questionable human rights record.

As this effort yielded no results, people had to resort to damage control. Even those who were initially skeptical about Jokowi, including me, began to spread the message that being neutral and not voting in a critical situation would give Prabowo a better chance and pave the way for the revival of authoritarianism.

'€œEmergency activism'€ is a term I borrow from Indonesian scholar and feminist activist Melani Budianta (2003). She deploys the phrase to describe the nature of the women'€™s movement that she was part of during the country'€™s political turbulence in 1997-1998.

With a strong sense of urgency, women activists formed alliances to respond to the economic crisis in the twilight of Soeharto'€™s power and cases of violence against women in 1998. In the pre-Twitter era, spontaneous decisions were made through phone calls, and new information was updated via mailing lists. The affiliations were intense, dynamic, but short-lived.

It could be argued that emergency activism has characterized many forms of social movement since 1998. New alliances are constantly formed to respond to crises, from discriminatory public policies to violence conducted by militant groups.

And emergency cases were plenty.

The post-Soeharto period has been marked by ongoing trial and error to redefine the nation. The government has been busy experimenting with new laws and policies to carry out '€œreform'€, but many of these experiments have produced anxiety, shock and tension.

The (Anti) Pornography Bill, one of the longest and most divisive national debates in the past decade, drew strong reactions from artists, scholars and activists for its patriarchal and anti-pluralist paradigms.

Other bills regulating film, media, and culture also maintain censorship, a legacy of the Soeharto regime, prompting civilians to organize themselves, write petitions and propose judicial reviews at the Constitutional Court.

This is not to mention street protests against religious intolerance, which worsened under the President Yudhoyono administration.

Collective action is taken in a do-it-yourself style, with a high dose of suspicion toward existing state institutions and political parties. Emergency activism is organic, tactical and, in Indonesia'€™s age of experiments, inescapable.

The voluntary involvement of ordinary citizens in emergency activism should be seen as a relentless restaging of a national drama embedded in the collective memory of Indonesians: the overthrow of Soeharto following large-scale student demonstrations.

The Soeharto regime made exhaustive attempts to '€œnormalize'€ the practice of citizenship through laws that sterilized citizens from having any potential of political subversion.

Yet in 1998, Indonesians witnessed how students left their comfort zones of homes and schools and transformed the street into an open space for political struggle.

Street politics has been overtly romanticized since then, but it has indeed reframed the notion of citizenship. Political engagement is viewed as desirable and, to some extent, it must be performed. Everyone could be, and is encouraged to be, an activist.

Emergency activism is grounded in temporal and corporeal encounters; it is highly effective and productive in creating a sense of solidarity. Its ephemerality, nevertheless, cannot be overstated. The activists are too disorganized to archive their achievements and failures.

It is thus important for observers to pause and acknowledge the presence of emergency activism as a recurrent practice, especially since the capacity of Indonesian citizens for political engagement has been trivialized at home and underrepresented abroad.

The government continues drafting bills that retain the Soeharto paradigm of the '€œmasses'€ (a term widely used in Prabowo'€™s campaigns), infantilizing citizens as uninformed and easily provoked people. The Western media has contributed differently to silencing these '€œmasses'€.

Many have written about The Act of Killing (2012) as the film that '€œbroke the silence'€. But whose silence? While the Indonesian government is still in denial about the nation'€™s guilt, artists, intellectuals and activists have long invested in independent initiatives to problematize the communist massacre of 1965-66, though with less access to the international stage compared to The Act of Killing.

The 2014 election was a victory of emergency activism and only by historicizing it can we identify its strengths and shortcomings.

Quick decisions made for damage control often result in inconsistencies, as reaching a consensus on what to compromise requires more time for reflection. Public initiatives are confronted with a high mortality rate.

As Melani has also warned, the problem of sustainability is looming. The dramaturgy has been quite predictable: people celebrate their success (or, more often, lament their defeat), and then return to their daily jobs until they are once again alarmed by another crisis.

The question of how to break the cycle and amplify political engagement remains a great challenge. Emergency activists themselves, including Jokowi'€™s volunteers, have wished for a clearer structure and a move toward institutionalization.

Yet perhaps Indonesian citizens should also cherish possessing emergency activism as a ready-to-use capability, something that most of us do not bother naming because it has always been there. Knowing that collective solidarity could be summoned anytime, in all its chaotic manifestations, is uplifting.


The writer is a fiction author and scholar. She recently completed her PhD at New York University with a dissertation on Indonesian film practices and activism.

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