Translating Membership into Power at the Ballot Box? Trade Union Candidates and Worker Voting Patterns in Indonesia’s National Elections

03 January 2017

This article analyses the effectiveness of trade unions’ electoral engagement in the union-dense electoral localities of Bekasi and Tangerang in Indonesia’s 2009 legislative elections. Our analysis reveals that legacies of authoritarianism, electoral rules, and union fragmentation pushed unions to pursue an ineffective electoral strategy of running union cadres on various party tickets. In Bekasi, local leaders within the Federation of Indonesian Metalworkers Unions (FSPMI) chose not to mobilize resources to support union candidates because the union’s national leadership had failed to convince them of the soundness of its strategy. In Tangerang, local leaders embraced the National Workers Union’s (SPN) national electoral strategy, but had inadequate membership data to conduct electoral mapping and did not provide candidates with financial and leadership support. Neither union, meanwhile, gave much consideration to the problem of translating membership to votes: survey data reveal that most members could not name union candidates, and many of those who could did not vote for them. The article argues that, despite its flaws, trade unions’ strategy of engagement in the electoral arena constitutes an important step forward in the consolidation of Indonesia’s democracy.