Muhammad Fajar and Aninda Dewayanti
This article is originally published in FULCRUM Analysis on Southeast Asia, 13 June 2023
Youth organisations in Indonesia have attracted some attention to climate change issues. But they need to widen their reach into the country’s political parties to drive their green agenda forward.
In Indonesia, green youth organisations are mushrooming and attracting attention in public policy debates. Civil society Organisations (CSOs) such as Extinction Rebellion Indonesia (XR), Koprol Iklim (KI), and Jaga Rimba share a similar vision of ecological justice with older green CSOs such as Greenpeace Indonesia and the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). While the 2024 elections will allow youth organisations to push conversations on policy solutions to tackle the climate crisis, more work is needed to overcome their lack of tactical nous and limited access to the political arena.
In the country’s history, Indonesian youths have been seen as agents of change at defining political moments, including the 1945 national revolution against the Dutch, the 1966 transition to the New Order, the 1974 anti-Japanese riots, and the democratic transition from Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998. They advocated many pressing issues, such as human rights, anti-authoritarianism, and political freedom. Like their predecessors, Indonesian youth are now calling for change in many other emerging issues, such as minority rights, mental health, and the environment. The latter requires immediate, vast advocacy for policy action to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Indonesian youth today generally have a high awareness of climate crisis issues, but outdated and ineffective mobilisation tactics impact their effectiveness. As inhabitants of one of the most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis, Indonesian youth see the importance of immediate action to handle the climate impacts. Respondents aged 18-25 in the ISEAS nationwide survey (INSP 2022) generally see climate change and environmental damage as urgent issues to be resolved (80.5 per cent). It is possible for Indonesia’s youth to strategically use such potential to catapult the green agenda into the 2024 elections policy debate. This is especially true with Generation Z joining as first-time voters. Green CSOs have the potential to reach at least 80 million voters aged 17-23 from 205 million eligible voters.
However, green youth organisations do not have the tactical capacity to tap into such vote banks. XR, for instance, used Harvard Political Scientist Erica Chenoweth’s study as a basis to drive 3.5 per cent of the total population into active participation and mass mobilisation to push serious policy change. XR is known for its attractive and creative mobilisation methods, such as displaying a hundred shoes in public to show youth resentment against extent climate policies. But such tactics have failed to address the need to assemble big crowds to alter the government’s stance on climate change.
XR and KI did attempt to mobilise a large number of people. On 23 September 2022, the two CSOs assembled, with other similar groups, a coalition named Bumi Butuh Aksi (BBA), which managed to gather thousands of people to launch a climate strike. Nevertheless, such numbers are small compared to the big crowds mobilised by the Jakarta-wide 212 mass protest in 2016 and the Fridays for Future global rallies in 2019. The latter saw large turnouts in Madrid and Sydney.
It was only in 2012 that a political party focused on environmental issues emerged — 13 years after initial efforts were made during the 1999 general election. The Indonesian Green Party (Partai Hijau Indonesia, PHI) is a breath of fresh air for young activists. It has allowed at least one candidate below 30 to hold a praesidium position. For instance, Melissa Kowara, a prominent figure of XR, was in the praesidium for PHI’s Jakarta branch for the 2016-2021 period. Another central figure is Nur Rosyid (Roy) Murthado from Nahdliyin Front National Committee for Natural Resource Sovereignty (FKNSDA). Roy is prominent among Islamic youth and peasants and often speaks for just resource distribution, especially to marginal groups.
However, since its establishment, the PHI has never been able to participate formally in any general elections. Such a failure limits the green youth movement’s access to the policy-making space. This is likely due to the movement’s lacking a local organisational network to amass sufficient support and a high reliance on exclusive local civil society organisations, such as the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi). This might not be optimal; CSOs are better at planning and monitoring empowerment programmes for small communities than assembling pockets of voter bases.
The lack of voter bases also undermines the party’s objective to register as a contestant in the 2024 General Elections. The authors’ interview with PHI National Presidium John Muhammad reveals that such a weakness led to the party’s failure to meet the administrative requirements for participating in the upcoming elections, especially for establishing party branches in all provinces. Moreover, the structure of the Indonesian party system embraces a “systematic conflation of political and economic power” among individuals or elite groups (the oligarchs). This constitutes a high barrier to entry for new parties with lesser financial capabilities.
In the long term, youth activists must broaden their social base to support the green agenda. They can deepen their network by establishing chapters on campuses and local communities affected by the climate crisis.
A short-term strategy to overcome these challenges is linking green activism with existing political parties. Ahead of the 2024 elections, Indonesian youths should have hard conversations with party incumbents and keep their prominent leaders engaged in the green policy agenda. The activists could register as candidates in the incumbent parties and vie for a national or local parliament seat. The caveat of this strategy is the activists’ low bargaining position as newcomers in the party that might compel them to compromise their agenda and weaken the green mission.
In the long term, youth activists must broaden their social base to support the green agenda. They should deepen their network by establishing chapters on campuses and local communities affected by the climate crisis. These chapters will function as platforms for activists to educate and recruit more members. Such a strategy is not without precedent. Jamaah Tarbiyah (JT), a conservative Muslim organisation, has a long history since the 1980s in inculcating its Muslim brotherhood values in high school and university youth. JT activists’ success in transforming its youth movement into the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in 1998 shows that long-term organisational building pays off. The Indonesian green youth movement has the potential to adopt a similar recruitment model to advance their social bases on campuses and local communities. This would help them make inroads into the political arena.
Muhammad Fajar (Ph.D.) is a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Research (IFAR), the Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia.
Aninda Dewayanti was a Research Officer in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.