Indonesia’s Fuel Protests Are a Sign of Things to Come in the Global South

Street protests have rocked Indonesia’s main cities since the country’s president, Jokowi, announced a cut to gasoline subsidies. With global energy prices soaring, the Indonesian protests are sure to be repeated elsewhere in the months to come.

Students rally against recent gasoline price hike in Surabaya on September 8, 2022. (Juni Kriswanto / AFP via Getty Images)

On Saturday, September 3, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (known as “Jokowi”) reduced the nation’s petroleum subsidies. Enraged by a sudden rise in gas prices, students took to the streets in a number of cities on the following Monday. Within days, professional drivers and average consumers alike joined popular protests that have paralyzed streets and city centers across the archipelago.

Technically, Jokowi did not raise the price of gas. However, the roughly 30 percent cut to petroleum subsidies immediately hit consumers at the gas pump. A liter of low octane jumped from IDR 7,650 (US$0.51) to 10,000 (US$0.67). Higher octane prices, which increased earlier this year, went from IDR 12,500 to 14,500.

The vast majority of Indonesians cannot afford automobiles and thus use motorcycles that take the cheaper product. As a result, the price hikes hit lower-income consumers hardest. With many countries throughout the Global South struggling to cope with soaring energy prices, the Indonesian protests may be a sign of things to come.

Archipelago of Protest

The disturbances have been widespread and at times violent. A May 2022 survey found that nearly 80 percent of Indonesians opposed a potential cut to the fuel subsidies, so we can assume that these current protests enjoy widespread popular support. Previous cuts this summer to the cooking oil subsidy have primed the public for outrage.

In the capital and largest city, Jakarta, the Indonesian Islamic Students Movement (PMII) led allied groups in an action near the presidential palace in central Jakarta. They were met by security forces with Barracuda-armored vehicles, razor wire, and water cannons.

After marching in their school uniforms while carrying PMII flags, students approached the police lines, burned tires, and threw banners on top of the razor wire. At one point, activists broke through and fought with police. Later, they marched to a major traffic circle near the US embassy and paralyzed the central Jakarta business district.

Elsewhere in Java, there were widespread protest events. In Cirebon, the Islamic Student Association, Indonesian National Students Movement, Indonesian Muslim Students Action Front, and the Cirebon Islamic Union Student Association marched together and scuffled with police. In Banten, students shut down roads with burning tires and gave speeches in front of government offices.

To the north, on the island of Sulawesi, students highjacked a container truck to block traffic and give speeches. In the city of Makassar, students burned tires in the street.

There were protests throughout Sumatra. In Aceh, the country’s northwestern-most province, students from Ar-Raniry State Islamic University occupied the local parliament and forced officials to listen to their demands. In Padang, the Islamic Student Association gathered hundreds of supporters in front of the West Sumatra Regional House of Representatives.

Further south, students from the Raden Fatah Palembang State Islamic University marched in their school colors and gave speeches. In Pematang Siantar City, police fired tear gas and detained a number of students.

On Monday afternoon and Tuesday, drivers of low-cost angkot minibuses went on strike in various cities and towns from Java to Sulawesi and even in outlying islands such as Ambon. As this left many low-income commuters and students stranded, local officials tried to use government vehicles to get school children home in cities like Banten.

On Wednesday in Yogyakarta, a group called the People’s Alliance Movement marched from a student dormitory to the regional government offices. In the course of this peaceful action, they gave speeches and blocked traffic on the central shopping street and tourist attraction Jalan Malioboro. Representatives of the motorized pedicab drivers gave their support, calling attention to their inability to make a living with the new gas prices.

Political Forces

While Islamic student organizations played a major role in the initial protests, Indonesia’s admittedly weak labor movement has threatened a series of strikes against the cut in subsidies. The Indonesian Trade Union Confederation president Said Iqbal called on parliament to oppose the new policies and promised to deploy thousands of protesters every Thursday until his demands were met.

In the 2014 presidential election, Iqbal firmly endorsed the candidacy of Prabowo Subianto, a former general under the New Order dictatorship of Suharto, human rights violator, and self-described fascist. In view of his previous support for Prabowo, we should take Iqbal’s statement with a grain of salt. His comments may be read as a way of taking political shots at the increasingly unpopular Jokowi and his allies.

Observers might wonder where left-wing organizations are during a crisis that is affecting those on the lower rungs of Indonesia’s socioeconomic ladder most intensely. Unfortunately, the organized left has very little purchase on the Indonesian political scene. Ever since General Suharto seized power in 1965 and presided over the wholesale massacre of left-wing activists and intellectuals while systematically dismantling the power of organized labor, Indonesia has been “the country with no left.”

The New Order regime of 1966–1998 also repressed religious groups. However, those political currents have been able to rebuild themselves since the restoration of democracy. In the past decade, Islamic organizations have staged large political demonstrations in Jakarta against its former governor Ahok, who had been one of Jokowi’s protégés.

It is therefore not surprising that seemingly conservative Islamic student groups have taken the lead in these protests. In Indonesia, there is always the possibility of elite actors deploying mobs for hire, but that does not seem to have been the case over the past week.

A Third Rail

Fuel subsidies have a long and controversial history in Indonesia. The left-wing populist leader Sukarno, who governed the country from 1949 until Suharto’s coup, instituted subsidies to help working-class Indonesians. It was only after General Suharto began his slow-motion coup against Sukarno that fuel prices were raised twice in late 1965 and 1966.

Under Suharto’s New Order, the regime instituted wide-ranging neoliberal reforms but tried to avoid unpopular cuts to fuel subsidies. When the 1998 Southeast Asian economic crisis hit, a dramatic rise in prices contributed to the dictator’s overthrow.

During the Reformasi era of democratic reforms from 1998 to the present, subsidies have been a political third rail. Puan Maharani — Sukarno’s granddaughter, a member of Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and potential 2024 presidential candidate — publicly cried during the 2008 fuel hikes. This week, a spokesman for the All Indonesian Workers’ Union pointedly asked where her tears are now.

We must see this cut to subsidies in the context of the global rise in fuel prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Repeating the 2013 playbook of his immediate predecessor, Jokowi’s move comes as he nears the end of his final term as president. He can thus pursue unpopular policies free of political consequences. However, he may damage his party’s future prospects in doing so.

The subsidy program has kept Indonesia’s prices at the pump some of the cheapest in the world at US $2 per gallon. Criticism of the subsidies is often grounded in arguments against government interference and in favor of market forces determining prices. Others argue for austerity to reign in the national budget. There is also an argument that the subsidies favor wealthier Indonesians, but you will have a hard time convincing low-income families who rely on motorcycle transportation to accept this point.

The same is true of the idea that Indonesia’s subsidies hinder the transition away from fossil fuels. Considering the nation’s weak electric grid and lack of green options for the vast majority of its 275 million citizens, this is a form of naïve techno-futurism that will not persuade those who have no practical alternative to the continued use of oil and gas.

Indonesia has vast oil and gas fields of its own, and many find it perplexing that the country has been unable to achieve fuel self-sufficiency. For the time being, however, it will remain dependent on the vagaries of the global energy market. While Indonesia’s political culture and system of government may have some unique characteristics, there is nothing peculiar about this vulnerability. Jokowi is unlikely to be the last president who has to grapple with the consequences as prices continue to soar.