The demise of emancipatory peasant politics? Indonesian fascism and the rise of Islamic populism

The death of class-based rural movements in Indonesia has entrapped rural resistance in the clutches of market power.

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Prabowo Subianto on horseback, Senayan City, Jakarta , Indonesia, 2014. Suffragio,org. Some rights reserved.

This article is seventh in the series on ‘confronting authoritarian populism and the rural world’, linked to the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI). The article opening the series can be read here.

As Indonesia prepares for regional elections in 2018 and national elections in 2019, political operators try to curry favour with both the military right and radical religious groups, in the scramble for votes.

Recent months have seen an escalation of fake news, penetration of extremist views into everyday discourse and violent attacks on the imagined evils of (supposedly) resurgent leftists, religious minorities and the LBGT community. Recent months have seen an escalation of fake news, penetration of extremist views into everyday discourse and violent attacks on the imagined evils of (supposedly) resurgent leftists, religious minorities and the LBGT community.

Symbols of the ‘New Order’ regime of President Soeharto, who was in power between 1966 and 1998, are being deployed by two new political parties, each sponsored by one of Soeharto’s children. The main rival of the current president, Joko Widodo, is Prabowo Subianto, Soeharto’s former son-in-law and military strongman. He appears at party rallies on horseback dressed like Mussolini, and once told a foreign journalist that he favoured a “benign authoritarian regime …Do I have the guts? Am I ready to be called a fascist dictator?”

What are the roots of Indonesian fascism? Why has it re-emerged on the political stage and accommodated Islamic populism? How does it shape and constrain emancipatory peasant politics?

Seeds of fascism

The seed of fascism has always been a kernel in Indonesian identity rhetoric. In the colonial time, nationalism took its first steps through an elitist movement of western-educated Javanese and aristocrats who gathered youth groups from many parts of the country and declared the existence of ‘one territory, one nation, and one language’. Inspired by the history of glorious kingdoms and sultanates, and the flourishing of fascist governments in Italy, Germany and Japan, Indonesian nationalism started to take fascism as its core idea.

The Indonesian Fascist Party founded in 1930 was chaired by a Javanese aristocrat. The group most impressed by fascism was the Parindra or Greater Indonesia Party, whose leaders expressed admiration for Hitler’s firmness, the German people’s love for their leaders, party and homeland and the strength of their organization, and encouraged the use of the German–Italian fascist salute at meetings.

The military gained a formal role in politics when the first President, Soekarno, announced martial law in 1957. Army officers were placed in the management of nationalized former Dutch enterprises, and for decades continued to be involved in state-owned plantations, mining, banking and trading corporations.

Military power became pervasive, especially after the 1965-66 massacres and persecution of leftists. Peasants were depoliticized through one-party domination. The land reform law of 1960 was labeled as a leftist agenda, and all peasant struggles were suspected as communist acts. State oligarchs, Chinese business conglomerates and military personnel controlled the logging, mining, plantation and financial companies. Such economic domination marginalized Islamic politics and narrowed chances for Moslems to become part of the Indonesian bourgeoisie.

The rise of Islamic populism

Twenty years after the downfall of Soeharto, the authoritarian and paternalistic practices of his “New Order” regime have not completely vanished.

With the conservative turn of Islam and rising inequality, anti-Chinese and anti-communist sentiments were used by the military to create imaginary threats. Riding the same wave, Moslem middle class entrepreneurs launched a campaign of ‘economic jihad’, and formed a ‘212 Moslem-cooperative’.

In combination with military power and the “dull compulsion of the market”, Islamic populism exercises powerful constraints on genuinely emancipatory rural movements, despite its mainly urban and middle-class roots. The bloody 1960s genocide against the left and continuing rural depoliticization have suppressed the formation of a critical progressive rural mass.

The return of authoritarian populism and heightened agrarian conflict

Despite populist challengers, such…

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