The Labour Party and Class Politics in Indonesia: An Analysis from Within 

The decision of the Labour Party (“Partai Buruh”) to participate in the 2024 elections has brought the political agenda of the working class to the attention of the wider public. This is a significant development for the advancement of the Indonesian working class struggle, as it marks the third time a worker-based party is allowed to engage in electoral politics. Another historical aspect of the current Labour Party is the active participation of several unions and popular organizations in its establishment process. Eleven people’s organizations are officially involved in the re-establishment of the Labour Party to enable its participation in the 2024 elections.

However, there is a problem regarding the partial exposure of the working class agenda through the Labour Party. While the Party’s ideas differ rhetorically from those of most existing electoral parties, it still falls short at the practical level, especially in terms of leadership, to present itself as a genuine alternative for working people. The broader public holds a strong pessimist view that the Labour Party will end up like other new parties, limited to participants who lack the ability to influence the existing political process.

This pessimism arises from the belief that the class-based politics advocated by the Labour Party may not resonate strongly among voters, who are typically influenced by religious values or nationalism. Furthermore, within the critical or radical sectors of society, the Labour Party is viewed as too unserious to promote significant political change, as its main constituent still consists significantly of conservative elements, particularly the yellow-conservative union, within its membership.

To clarify the current status of the class struggle in Indonesia, it is crucial to explain this discrepancy between rhetoric and practice. As a socialist within the Labour Party, I offer an assessment of the Party’s politics.1


Class Politics of the Labour Party: The Material Politics of the Indonesian Working Class


What is the class politics of the Labour Party? Instead of understanding its class politics as usually understood as “class struggle based on the structured relationship of exploitation that manifests with the conflict between the interest of the working class as a collective against the capitalist class that rules the political power, I see that the class politics of the Labour Party needs to be seen as material politics.

The term material politics was popularly introduced in Riley and Brenner’s (2023) account of US contemporary politics.2 According to them, an important political development in the 1990s is that state policy will always consider the material interests of the working class. It is because “they [Republican or Democratic Party] must both seek to appeal to the material interests of those who ‘own only their own labour power’ since this sector makes up the vast majority of the American population. Any party that competes in electoral politics must to some extent respond to working-class interests”. This development is undoubtedly very interesting, considering that if placed in the context of the aggressive adoption of neoliberalism in the Reagan era, the interests of the working class are interests that the US state will always marginalize.

However, Riley and Brenner note that the Biden administration’s accommodation of the working class does not mean that class politics is on the rise in the contemporary US experience. They argue that “because naturally neither Democrats nor Republicans seek to mobilize the many workers who vote for them against capital; nor do they attempt to exert effective political control over capital”. Unsurprisingly, in this accommodation, there is no agenda to resist capital or at least to discipline the uncontrolled movements of capital.

Instead, Riley and Brenner call the politics surrounding the agenda of the working class accommodated in the state material politics. This is because these political interests centre on improving the quality of life of workers, such as increasing wages or employment, in a system dominated by private ownership. It is no wonder that, according to Riley and Brenner, both the Democratic and Republican Parties are forced to compete to appeal to the working class with these specific interests.

Such views may seem alien to Marxism but not to current debates in the social sciences. A redistribution agenda that improves the quality of life of the lower classes does not necessarily emphasize the emergence of class struggle. Elite interests can be the rationale for efforts to improve quality of life. In Africa, for example, Wood (2004) finds that redistribution through social policy can emerge in contexts where the social insecurity of the lower classes aligns with elite interests.3 The clientelist relationship between the poor as clients and the wealthy elite as patrons becomes the primary mechanism in providing redistribution to address the insecurity of the poor. He asserts that “relief or welfare transfer…occur in return for loyalty and other ‘dependent’ favours which contribute to the reproduction of the initial inequality”. 

Other research on social protection provisions in Sub-Saharan Africa suggests that elites’ political motives to maintain their power amid crisis may also be a factor explaining redistribution under elite monopolies on state power.4 They suggest that certain forms of redistribution, such as subsidies, may become a “certain mode of rent redistribution used by elites to maintain legitimacy and political support” when elites begin to feel intense political pressure from crises that could threaten their power.

In Latin America, basic democratic features, such as electoral competition for popular support, incentivise elites to promote redistributive policies that favour the lower classes.5 Political competition against the Left is also a strong reason for elites, through their Right parties, to introduce redistribution.6 But the relationship between electoral competition and redistribution may be uneven. In the case of local municipalities in Mexico, for example, some researchers have found no explicit link between competition as measured by margin of victory and government provision of public goods as a particular form of redistribution.7

Drawing on Riley and Brenner, the interests of the working class majority in the Labour Party more or less represent the material political position. The majority still sees the possibility of improving the quality of life (or fate) in the ongoing political-economic system. A critical and systematic view against the power of capital is still very minimal in the Labour Party. Capitalism is still seen in the existence of a chaotic person rather than as a complex system that needs to be transformed. It is no wonder that the programmes offered by the Labour Party seek more to improve the situation of the working class than to promote the universal emancipation of humanity.

However, unlike Riley and Brenner, I still see Labour Party’s politics as class politics for several reasons. 



One of the problems in realizing democracy and prosperity is the power of political elites. What is the Labour Party’s attitude towards the political elites?

The direct answer to this question is: the Labour Party generally positions itself as a political opponent to the existing elite. It sees the current elite that dominates Indonesian politics as a major obstacle to democracy and the general welfare of the people. One of the main reasons the Labour Party was founded was because of the belief among the workers who joined the Labour Party that the dream of improving their lives could no longer be left in the hands of the ruling elite. With the introduction of the Job Creation Law and the narrowing of the democratic space available, workers had to start fighting for their own interests in state politics. 

I argue that the Labour Party’s material politics is class politics because it has successfully taken a clear political position about its political independence. The Labour Party saw the workers and the working class at large as the social class most capable of changing its own destiny, explicitly distinguishing its own interests from those of the ruling class. This political conclusion led to the Party’s official declaration that it is a class party, with the basis of its political agenda being working-class politics, “We are the Working Class”.

However, this rhetorical statement must be substantiated. In my opinion, four important facts can be used to assess the Labour Party’s politics as class politics.

The first is the decision of the majority of trade unions to form and fight for their own election party. In the Indonesian context, the formation of an electoral party is an arduous process. The existing administrative rules often make many elements of the people’s movement pessimistic about being involved in electoral contestation. But in the Labour Party’s experience, this arduous process of party formation must be carried out. The journey from forming the Party to successfully qualifying the Party to participate in the election was certainly not an easy one and was full of sacrifices. They had to sacrifice routine organizational agendas, such as members’ economic advocacy, through the management of very limited organizational resources. If the organization previously had resources for advocacy alone, then because of the need to build an electioneering party, they also had to allocate resources to succeed in this goal.

This has its own risks, as the reallocation of resources could potentially undermine the organization’s advocacy work. Not to mention that each person in the union organization had to take on additional workloads, not only in advocacy but also to engage seriously in electoral registration administration. In this process, I see the Labour Party emerging as an independent social force because the effort to form a political party is done through the efforts and resources of all organizations within the Party itself.

The second fact is related to the internal constellation of the Labour Party itself. As soon as it was established, the Labour Party faction, such as Said Iqbal’s KSPI (“Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions”), immediately tidied up their political positions. It must be admitted that as a union, KSPI has carried out many political initiatives where it has placed many of its members in various existing political parties.

Since the Labour Party emerged, KSPI, as the founding faction of the Party, decided to call on many of its members who were affiliated with other political parties to abandon their affiliation and start joining the Labour Party. However, many of its members did not obey the call. The political rejection by some members led to organizational discipline. Many members who were known to have political party affiliations were excommunicated by the Party. Names such as Nyumarno (who echoed in PDIP), Rusdi (PKS), and Obon Tabroni (Gerindra) are big names in KSPI who have ties to Said Iqbal but had to be disciplined. Disciplined members are not allowed to mobilize through KSPI. For me, this is an expression of class independence since all founding union elements must have exclusive political loyalty to the Party to ensure a political agenda that is free from other political influences.

The third fact is the composition of the Labour Party itself. As mentioned before, It was founded by 11 people’s organizations. Admittedly, the organizations that founded the Party also included large union organizations that are often identified as yellow or conservative unions. However, this does not mean that the big unions that are considered conservative control all organizational structures. KPBI (“Confederation of United Indonesian Workers”), as a leftist union, was also a founding member of the organization. They have the same veto rights as other organizations to give the Party political directors. With this veto right, they also have the authority to criticize or correct when the Party leadership is considered to have deviated from the class political agenda.

This constellation means that internally, the Labour Party has various political tendencies. My element, the National Political Committee (henceforth “Kompolnas”), is a progressive/left/socialist element recognized by the organization. In this sense, we are allowed to spread working-class political ideas according to socialist principles within the organization. In fact, within the organization’s structure, members of the National Political Commission are the head of the Ideologisation and Cadre Department and the secretary of the Infocomm and Propaganda department. In the campaigning and educational spaces of the organization, ideas are consciously disseminated that are progressive in nature and even tend to be socialist. Here, I see the political independence of the Labour Party because the organization recognizes the diversity of political tendencies within the working class that should be accommodated by the Party rather than marginalized.8

The last fact is that the Labour Party’s official decision is not to align with political parties that either support the Job Creation Law or not firmly reject the Law, such as the Democrats and PKS (“Prosperous Justice Party”). In my opinion, this decision is an expression of class politics. Because this decision broadly exposes the Party’s public position about existing elite politics. It explicitly shows its class and political independence, considering that it can clearly identify who is an obstacle to the Party’s own political agenda. 




What is the Labour Party’s current and future struggle strategy, given that political elites dominate the government and Parliament?

Although there are various tendencies in the Labour Party, we all agree that the state needs to be controlled to change the quality of life of the working people. The pattern of distribution of state resources must be changed, which requires a change in political relations. In this case, this change in political relations is characterized by a change in the pattern of representation in the state. I argue that the power of the ruling class seems unchallengeable because there is no real representation of the working class in the state. Therefore, the Party’s strategic orientation is to change this pattern of representation where the working class must also actively exist and have power in state institutions.

Once the pattern of representation has changed, the next agenda is to wage an active struggle to change the pattern of distribution of state resources. More state resources must be allocated to the welfare of working people. In this case, the agenda can be legal in nature where working class organizations such as unions are simultaneously or slowly strengthened; it can be economic-material in nature where state policies promote economic redistribution; and it can also be material-general in nature where the state is managed to provide affordable public services that anyone can access.

The main function of changing this pattern of resource distribution is to increase the capacity and political confidence of the working class in contesting its interests in the Indonesian capitalist state. When the political capacity and confidence of the working class grow, we will have a massive base that is not only objective but also subjective, which is necessary to fight for a class political agenda that is more transformative than the material politics of the Labour Party today.

So, while the Labour Party generally does not yet have an anti-capitalist agenda as commonly understood in any working-class organization, the struggle to realize its material interests still requires the organization to confront the ruling elite. The power of the existing political elite is, of course, directly and indirectly influenced by the development of capitalism itself. The task of the socialist group within the Party then is to provide an economic-political critique of capitalism in every antagonistic practice of the working class within the Party towards the elite. By revealing the problems of capitalism that conceal the behaviour of the elite, it opens up an educational process for the working class in the Party to see that the main problem is entrenched capitalism in Indonesia. The concrete indicator of this thesis can be seen when the political tendency of the National Political Commission becomes the main tendency of the organization, or it can also be that many Party structures are controlled by people who are ideologically, politically and organisationally affiliated with the National Political Commission.




Some Labour Party leaders have a history of collaborating with political elites. Even the majority of presidential and vice presidential candidates nominated within the Labour Party reflect this collaboration. Can the Labour Party be a political force for democracy and welfare?

This is an important question that must be clarified. However, in my opinion, the dynamics must be placed in the context of the Indonesian election itself. Anyone in Indonesia knows that elections are not a space of equal contestation. Those who hold power have the capacity and resources to manipulate the outcomes of the electoral process. This is inevitable considering that, as an institution, Indonesian elections are produced by the political process of capitalist elites who are members of major parties.

This structural condition then becomes the main problem for the Labour Party. As a new party whose real support is yet to be seen, the Labour Party has the potential to become a major problem for the existing political forces. Although it succeeded in becoming an electoral participant, it is naive to think that the ruling class will ignore its electoral performance. The Labour Party’s fragile position in the current electoral structure certainly threatens the long-term political agenda of the class. Failure to navigate the power relations entrenched in the existing electoral system has the potential to deny the Party any seat in Parliament.

This threat of failure is further increased by current public opinion. Many opinion surveys circulating in the mass media show that the Labour Party’s electability is very small, around 0.1-0.9%. This shows that the Labour Party may not reach the parliamentary threshold of 4% in the 2024 elections. This hard fact is certainly a problem for the working class fighting for their collective agenda through the Party. If the survey’s predictions are true, we will face a worrying state of politicization of the working class. Strenuous efforts to build a political tool for class struggle are rewarded with the political failure of the working class itself. It will be difficult for all of us who are pushing forward the class agenda through contestation of state power because we will again have no representation in the state. The effort to rise again will take a long time because those who are politicized and friends in building a big party are likely to be demoralized and lose political trust.

It is in this political context that the Labour Party leadership’s manoeuvres need to be placed. They pragmatically see that the most realistic option to navigate the power relations that surround the current electoral process is to build good, or collaborative, relations with political elites who are considered to be able to defend the Labour Party’s survival in the elections. Based on my analysis, this leadership manoeuvre assumes that by collaborating, they will gain support and material resources from the elite to survive the electoral contestation and achieve the main goal of reaching the parliamentary threshold. This is where I emphasize that the political position of the leadership is again a manifestation of the material politics of the Indonesian working class.

This argument seems counter-intuitive to my previous argument about the Labour Party being a manifestation of working-class independence. However, it should be noted that I first argued that the emergence of working-class politics in the Labour Party must be understood historically. Although the existing leadership played an important role in the formation of the Party, they could not break out of the subordinate yet accommodating pattern of labour-ruling class political relations that existed from the New Order era to the current reform era, in which the workers must be forced to subordinate their collective common interests to the ruling elite to obtain certain material concessions.

The problem is that this is an assumption whose validity cannot be proven. There is no guarantee that even if the Labour Party collaborates, it can achieve its electoral goals as expected as an organisation. There is no guarantee that elites will commit material resources to support the Party’s campaigns. This indication has at least been proven, partially, of course, by the fact that although the Party recently has supported elite names, the level of electability survey has not changed; its electability remains at 0%.

Of course, as a socialist element within the Party, it is the responsibility of Kompolnas to strongly criticize this pragmatic manoeuvre. Kompolnas has publicly stated that what the leadership is doing could undermine the main agenda of building a consistent working-class political agenda. The problem is that the left position in the organization has not been able to address the dilemma faced by the organization in the elections. Although Kompolnas has always publicly echoed the importance of the class struggle agenda in the electoral process, due to its small organizational capacity, its influence is limited. While the aspirations of Kompolnas are given space, this does not mean that they are the dominant perspective for most Labour Party members. This is where, in my opinion, the leadership lacks the urgency to see Kompolnas‘ position as the main answer to the real electoral problems faced by the Party.

In light of the unequal power configuration between material, political tendencies and socialist-progressive tendencies, coupled with the importance of winning in the elections as a necessary condition for the advancement of the class struggle in Indonesia, the view of some on the Left to encourage an antagonistic confrontation between the two different tendencies is unrealistic.9

Antagonistic confrontation in the sense that “the Left from the very beginning should openly – not hold back – a campaign that the Labour Party should adopt the principle of working-class independence; announce loudly that the reformist and class collaborationist policies of the rightist leaders will doom the Labour Party” or “increase the radicalization of the workers and the people… [through the preparation of] strike committees in every factory to industrial area, in every campus to the regions”. For me, this antagonistic confrontation will only weaken the process of working-class political consolidation being pursued through the Labour Party. This is because party members are forced to be distracted by internal conflicts rather than prepare for the electoral battle. It must be remembered that working-class political activity in the Party is not just a matter of propaganda or education to support the normative-economic advocacy agenda, as the union has always done. 

To ensure the success of the Party’s electoral agenda, many of these working-class members must also engage in new organizational activities such as conducting political education of members that goes beyond the union’s agenda, mass political organizing that is certainly different from union organizing, even down to the electoral administrative matters set by the often onerous and complicated election organizing committee. This new kind of work is gruelling and requires the full concentration of all members to be involved in the process. Moreover, even if the confrontation does not distract the organization as it is argued, with the Left still so small as it is now, it can create risks for the Left itself as the escalated state of the conflict can serve as an excuse for the current leadership to marginalize the Left’s place in the organizational process.

This is not to suggest that Kompolnas always follows the political positions of the current leadership. Confrontation with the leadership’s pragmatic manoeuvres deemed as deviating from the working class agenda is still important and necessary. However, what must be considered is that the confrontation carried out by Kompolnas against the leadership must be strategic. In this sense, Kompolnas‘ confrontation with the leadership must not undermine the Party’s internal consolidation process. Therefore, the confrontation must be positioned as an effort to strengthen the Party organization with the aim of demanding accountability and transparency of the existing leadership to remain consistent in the lines and principles of the true class struggle. Such demands can persuade the wider membership to be more proactive in exercising democratic control over the leadership. In this strategic sense, the Kompolnas‘ open confrontation with the leadership ultimately becomes a vehicle for working-class political education within the Party, which I believe is useful for consolidating a genuine class political agenda within the Party.

Returning to the question posed about whether the Party can become a political force to realize democracy and prosperity, the answer can be sorted into three options: no, maybe yes, and most likely yes.

If we base the calculation on the Party’s current electoral dilemma, which then becomes the basis for the leadership to choose to collaborate with the elite without the precondition of a political programme, it is certain that the Party’s main agenda to promote class struggle will be deflated from the start even if they succeed in entering Parliament.

However, the answer could also be yes if this collaboration is placed tactically by the Party leadership with the aim of getting into the state structure. Tactical collaboration in the sense that the Party leadership was able to force some of its political agenda to be accepted by the ruling elite. As working-class representation increases, the Labour Party must immediately fight hard for the working-class agenda within the state. Of course, this comes with the prerequisite that the Party leadership is consistent with a political position that is independent of the elite. The problem is that such a possibility only has a slim chance amidst the current imbalance in power relations between people’s political organizations like the Labour Party and the political organizations of the ruling class.

However, we can get a big yes if the internal struggle of the Kompol can gain the sympathy of the majority of Party members. If this happens, members will have the power to control the political choices of the organization’s leadership, which will guarantee more serious efforts to realize democracy and the welfare of the working class at large. But for me, this potentiality still needs a long time to become actual, depending on the ability of Kompolnas to win its agenda in the Party.


What to do about the Labour Party?


The Labour Party is an open working-class space. However, this openness still has a bias where the dominant class’s political perspective is to keep building subordinate relations with the ruling elite. This certainly makes the Party have two contrasting but related faces: on the one hand, it can be an opportunity to push forward the class struggle, but on the other hand, it can also be a tool of co-optation by the ruling class to reduce the aspirations of the class struggle. 

For me, this condition of openness is an opportunity. What is needed then is not just militancy but also the calculation of a rational and systematic political strategy to win the true class political agenda in the internal space of Labour Party politics itself. The main indicator of this success is a shift in the balance of power where the positions and perspectives put forward by Kompolnas can become the dominant position in the organization. In other words, the Party’s class politics is a class politics in search of form.

On the face of it, the task of Kompolnas is unrealistic because, internally, they are the smaller factions and are likely to lose out in terms of political positioning. However, we need to look at the party process more broadly, where political parties themselves cannot be isolated from the dynamics of society at large. In this regard, it is important to create a dynamic relationship between the Kompolnas and the politicized elements of the people’s movement to continue to push a genuine working-class agenda in the Party. The prosecution of the working class agenda by the broader popular elements of the Party could be an important factor in providing additional impetus for a shift in the balance of power towards a genuine and consistent working class agenda as championed by the Kompolnas.

The challenge lies with the elements of the People’s Movement itself. If the perception of most elements of the People’s Movement still see the Labour Party as an instrument of manipulation by the union elite, it is certain that Kompolnas’ initiative to win a genuine working-class agenda will be isolated. However, when the People’s Movement strategically sees the Labour Party as an opportunity to push forward the politics of class struggle, then there is an opportunity for the Party to become an instrument to push forward the agenda of the working class in the next election. Therefore, political solidarity between anti-capitalist class struggle elements within the Party and people’s movement elements outside the Party is key!

  1. To provide clarity, I will address three main questions posed by the Organization of Socialist Youth (OKMS) during a public discussion titled “Completing the 1998 Reform for Prosperity and Democracy for the People” held on May 20, 2023, where I had the opportunity to speak.
  2. Riley, D., and Brenner, R. (2023). “Seven Theses on American Politics” in New Left Review, (138), 5-27. downloaded from
  3. Wood, Geoff. “Informal security regime: the strength of relationship” in Gough, Ian, Geoff Wood, Armando Barrientos, Philippa Bevan, Graham Room, and Peter Davis. Insecurity and welfare regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America: Social policy in development contexts. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  4. Hickey, Sam, Tom Lavers, Miguel Niño-Zarazúa, and Jeremy Seekings. “The negotiated politics of social protection in East and Southern Africa.” The politics of social protection in Eastern and Southern Africa (2020): 1-41
  5. Chartock, Sarah. ““Corporatism with adjectives”? Conceptualizing civil society incorporation and indigenous participation in Latin America.” Latin American Politics and Society 55, no. 2 (2013): 52-76; Fairfield, T., & Garay, C. (2017). Redistribution under the right in Latin America: Electoral competition and organized actors in policy-making. Comparative Political Studies50(14), 1871-1906
  6. Huber, Evelyne, and John D. Stephens. Democracy and the left: Social policy and inequality in Latin America. University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  7. Moreno Jaimes, C. (2005). Decentralization, electoral competition and local government performance in Mexico (Doctoral dissertation, Ph. D. Dissertation. LBJ School of Public Affairs. UT Austin); Cleary, M. R. (2007). Electoral competition, participation, and government responsiveness in Mexico. American Journal of Political Science51(2), 283-299.
  8. This means that the individuals in charge of these departments have complete discretion and authority to develop practical programs based on their specific needs. Therefore, if a person holds socialist views, they are permitted to create programs from a socialist perspective.
  9. For this position see:;

Muhammad Ridha is a member of the Labour Party in Indonesia and currently serving as a Special Staff of the Department of Ideology and Cadre-ization. He is actively involved in the civil society movement in Indonesia related to working class politics and democratization. He is an editorial member of the IndoPROGRESS Journal. He is currently conducting his doctoral studies in Political Science at Northwestern University.