Fri, 19 Mar 1999

Chicken as a crisis indicator

By Hermawan Sulistyo

JAKARTA (JP): The country is still vulnerable to rioting and social unrest due to the worsening political economy.

Besides political aspects, the deterioration of the economy since the middle of 1997 has provided conditions conducive to the occurrence of explosive riots or anarchy.

Other indicators more familiar for political economists, ranging from a larger pattern of consumption to decreasing purchasing power, can also be added.

The political economy of the people, therefore, can be used to measure the vulnerability of society to unrest, anarchy and other violent social dislocations. This rule can be called "the political economy of chicken".

In the 1970s, for example, chicken was still regarded as a luxury food because it was consumed only by middle and upper class families. In the 1980s, the arrival of the massive modern poultry industry resulted in much cheaper prices of the meat, making it affordable for lower class families. But in 1998, when the economic crisis intensified, many poultry companies went bankrupt. Before closing down their operations, these companies, in early 1998, sold their chicken at very low prices. For people celebrating Idul Fitri or Lebaran festivities after the Muslim Ramadhan fasting month, cheap chicken was a blessing.

In several places such as East Java, chicken sold at one-third of its previous price levels. This fact alone temporarily contributed to calming the political climate in early 1998, and added to the already subdued political situation since the people were restraining themselves during the fasting month. But, as it became clear later, this was a pseudo-calmed political climate.

After Lebaran, which fell in 1998 on the last day of January, the scarce supply of chicken drove its prices to double and then triple. With money having been drawn upon for Lebaran, prices of chicken were now unreachable. With no understanding of what was behind the price hike, not to mention the price hikes for all other consumer goods and services as shown by uncontrollable inflation rates, frustration and dissatisfaction mounted.

Fanned by the increasing political tension, the potential for a riot was then only a matter of time and logical consequence of this explosive situation. What happened later was riots and violent conflicts. Without any understanding of this "political economy of chicken", it is impossible to assess mass upheavals throughout the year of 1998. This is not to deny political causes that in fact played a pivotal contributing role to social dislocations.

In early 1999, the situation was similar to the previous year. With most poultry companies already bankrupt, egg production was very low, forcing the government to import egg. The increasing demand for chicken meat and egg during Lebaran on Jan. 19 could not be met by the domestic supply.

By a normal equation of the "political economy of chicken and egg", the society's resilience was vulnerable immediately after the Lebaran. With almost no public savings left, one week after Lebaran was the last bastion of economic resilience. This was particularly true for certain segments of occupational workers, small-scale traders and those in the service industry. Nonagricultural cities and regions were then the most vulnerable areas for social dislocations, with riots as their most dangerous type.

Also by a normal standard of the "political economy of chicken and egg", agriculture-based communities were less vulnerable than those of nonagricultural areas. There was hitherto only a few recorded cases of rural or farming unrest. But it was an overly pseudo-calm situation. Starting from Dec. 1, 1998, the government stopped its subsidies for domestic sales of fertilizer and costs for rice planting consequently doubled.

December 1998 was the planting season, so that an increase in fertilizer price could normally cause peasant unrest. Many, if not most, rice farmers, however, still held stockpiles of fertilizer from the previous planting season. Dissatisfaction and resentment were growing but still under control. Only small-scale riots broke out here and there -- with the two best known cases taking place in small towns in Central Java.

April 1999 is the next planting season of rice, after the harvest season in March. With no increase in the government-set floor price of rice, it will be hard for rice farmers to earn profits from their harvest. Social unrest in rural areas and rice-producing areas can thus be expected to take place after April.

The potential for riots in rural areas, however, is not the same as in nonagricultural areas. Different structures of land ownership, production efficiency and consumption patterns all contribute to the different levels of societal resilience. Some areas are more vulnerable to social unrest than others. The result is a more sporadic pattern of small-scale rioting, unrest, anarchy and even a "merely" increasing crime rate. In a longitudinal framework, the rural unrest could continue for sometime until the next harvest season, which will fall in July.

This analysis of people's political economy might be too optimistic. Social resilience is in fact not as strong as expected. A few weeks before Lebaran, riots occurred in several cities and areas -- like Lhokseumawe in Aceh, as well as Tangerang and Karawang in West Java, to mention just a few. One may argue that the riots were incited by provocateurs and thus the causes and triggering factors were political rather than anything else.

But without social, political and economic conditions conducive to the eruption of social dislocation, it would be impossible to spark a riot. The triggers were, therefore, less important. They might be political in nature but could also be only a brawl between kids, like what happened in Kalibata, South Jakarta, recently. Even in remote areas, far from Jakarta, such as Ambon in Maluku and North Sulawesi, riots broke out unexpectedly.

Thus, based on the "political economy of chicken and eggs" approach, we are facing a grim condition in the near future. Under this condition, if the coming general election ever fails, it will be caused more by popular unrest rather than elite conflicts and fragmentation.

The writer is executive director of the Jakarta-based Research Institute for Democracy and Peace (RIDeP).