Learning by Doing: Trade Unions and Electoral Politics in Batam, Indonesia, 2004-2009

03 January 2017

Academic studies of local politics in post-Suharto Indonesia focus on the emergence of coalitions between parties and candidates, arguing that the entrenched and dominant role of political elites has effectively excluded non-elite interests from the electoral arena. The question, then, given the very real and serious obstacles to popular participation, is: what possibility is there for non-elite actors to engage in a meaningful way in electoral politics? One example of an attempt at such engagement can be found in the industrial city of Batam, where the local branch of the Federation of Indonesian Metalworkers Unions set up a purpose-specific structure to promote the political interests of its members in successive local executive and legislative elections. This paper argues that, despite the ultimate failure of the union’s electoral experiments between 2004 and 2009, the process of ‘learning by doing’ embedded in them presents a significant challenge to analyses that discount the possibility of substantive popular participation in electoral politics.