Like millions of Indonesians, I watched the protests against the fuel subsidy cut as it was debated in Parliament last week. They were at it (debating, not protesting) into the wee hours; in the end, the protests were big and ugly enough for the opposition and coalition partners to hold the ruling party to ransom. They fudged it, agreeing that if the global fuel price goes up a lot, they will act. Result? Unruly politics – 1; responsible fiscal policy – 0.
Technocrats and policy types all agree the fuel subsidy is A Bad Thing. It cost US$18bn last year- more than half of spending on education (US$£32bn). The Iran situation will increase global fuel prices. 60-70% of the fuel subsidy benefits the richest 40% of Indonesians. But because fuel subsidies are so economically irrational, technocrats and policy types fail to analyse the political responses and easily discount the protests. Pure party politics, they say; protestors are cheaply hired; an easy populist win for parties against the cut; there weren’t many protestors really etc.
On the other side, protestors, spokespersons and even the occasional real person were heard arguing that no, increasing fuel prices by 33% will be bad for ordinary people. For one thing, the price of food in this island nation depends directly on fuel and sharp rises in the basic costs of living are toughest for people on low incomes. On cue, food prices shot up in anticipation.
To an outsider, there is a mesmerising balletic quality to the repertoire of fuel price protests. There seem to be clearly defined moves, honed over the decades. Some responses are no doubt learned from when the mighty Suharto lost power after the 1998 fuel price rise protests. There were protests in 2002, 2005, and 2008 against fuel subsidy cuts. The ritualistic quality helps the policy wonks dismiss this as ‘mere politics’; the spectacle seems not entirely real. The policewomen doing their cute dance to calm the crowds in Surabaya illustrates how domesticated– how subversively ruly (as Alex Shankland says) these protests are. Even then, there is an edge of danger: to contain Tuesday’s protests took 14,000 police and 8,000 army.
I doubt that fuel price protests are just the shadow-puppetry of elite politics. Fuel price rises unite the concerns of the poorest with that far more politically important and better organised class – the numerous nearly-poor, the group recently described by Martin Ravallion as ‘bunched up just above the poverty line’. This group is not the target of the sophisticated proxy-means tested social protection schemes so beloved of the international technocracy. But the nearly-poor have excellent reasons to be annoyed that their protection against inflation is being removed, as industrial workers in Bekasi (itself the site of protests earlier this year) told us during the price spike last year.
So here it seems is the recipe for a successful bout of unruly politics:
• A history of having worked
• Some familiar routines and rituals (Charles Tilly’s ‘repertoire’)
• A popular, broad-based concern to protect basic rights
• Actors willing to politicise the issue to their own advantage
• Authorities sensitive about unpopularity (general elections in 2014).
Clearly the technocrats need a much sharper political analysis if they are ever going to make this reform work. Conclusion? Political analysis – 1; technical correctness – 0.
Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the IDS Power, Participation and Social Change Team.