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Indonesia’s Aceh Province votes in test for peace process

Former combatants and women in colorful head scarves lined up to choose a new governor and one of 17 district heads in the second election since the signing of a 2005 peace agreement.

With mountains that once harbored separatist guerrillas looming in the background, voters shrugged off worries of violence Monday to cast their ballots in the birthplace of a bloody separatist insurgency that wracked Indonesia’s westernmost province for three decades.

All across Aceh, former combatants and women in colorful head scarves lined up to choose a new governor and one of 17 district heads in the second such election since the signing of a 2005 peace agreement.

In Tiro, a stronghold of the rebel group the Free Aceh Movement, known locally as GAM, voters said they were not afraid, despite concerns that recent violence could flare up during the polls. Some said they were voting for change, but for many, the more pressing issue was stability. The hotly contested election is seen as a test of the peace process in a province many view as a model of how former combatants can be brought out of the jungle and into politics.

“We cannot go back to where we’ve been,” says Yeti, a rice farmer who has spent most of her life moving to avoid the conflict. “We don’t want any more problems for Aceh.”

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But the transition to civilian government has created bitter rivalries among the resistance-hardened rebels who now control the government.

Polls initially scheduled for last October were delayed several times due to a dispute over election laws and a spate of violence that has seen nine people killed, execution style, in the months since.

Observers say that violence was politically motivated and is not a sign of a return to conflict. What it does reveal, however, is the type of rule taking hold in this long-troubled province.

“Are we going to have a peace that’s moving forward and generally supportive of the democratic process, or are we going to have a peace categorized by fear and thuggery?” says Sidney Jones, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group consultancy.

A peace agreement signed in Helsinki, Finland, in 2005 granted special autonomy status to this conservative Islamic province — the only one in Indonesia ruled by strict Islamic law. It came just months after the Indian Ocean tsunami swept through, killing roughly 130,000 people in Indonesia.

The hope of the development community that poured into Aceh following that disaster was that money and aid could rebuild not just the physical infrastructure but also the institutions needed to usher in democracy. Billions of dollars went to programs aimed at reintegration and reconstruction.
Aceh now has a new port, smooth roads, and a sparkling city hall, but poverty and unemployment are among the country’s highest, industrial development remains in its infancy, and concerns over continued violence and corruption have kept investors at bay. Many former combatants, however, have grown rich by offering their support to provincial and district-level officials in return for lucrative infrastructure projects.

How a rebel rift opened up

Former GAM spokesman Irwandi Yusuf won the first election for governor in 2006 thanks largely to support from those combatants. In doing so, he beat the candidate backed by the GAM leadership, opening a bitter rift that has only deepened in the years since.

During legislative elections in 2009, Party Aceh, GAM’s political arm, took control of the local parliament, regaining some of its dignity in a place where honor carries a premium. But it has not forgotten the loss to Irwandi.

It has worked to weaken the former governor by obstructing many of the policies he has backed. More recently, it ejected him from the party and then boycotted the election over a decision by the Constitutional Court to allow independent candidates. Party Aceh eventually agreed to join the election, but only after pushing the poll back until after Irwandi’s term expired, denying him the advantage of running as an incumbent.

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“They want to win at all costs,” said the former governor, heaving a sigh and slumping against a couch in his palatial home on the day before the vote.

The Oregon-trained veterinarian gained popular support by implementing a health insurance program and providing cash assistance in the form of school scholarships and a village development program.

But he says Party Aceh has manipulated voters into believing that he has betrayed the fight for autonomy. Meanwhile, Party Aceh’s candidate for governor, Zaini Abdullah, has curried favor by promising to fully implement the Helsinki peace agreement, parts of which still face resistance from Jakarta because of the autonomy provisions.

Some intimidation, but a largely peaceful campaign

Some observers say it has also used intimidation to get voters on its side.

“Politics is about power and Party Aceh has that,” and it’s using it to manipulate people to its advantage, says Fajran Zain, a political analyst with the Aceh Institute.

In recent weeks, police arrested several suspects behind a series of unexplained killings that involved mostly migrant plantation workers from Java. The motive for those shootings remains unclear, but some of the suspects have been linked back to Party Aceh.

The homes of several campaign staff have also been subject to shootings and arson, but since campaigning began on March 22, tensions have been mostly limited to small street skirmishes that involve stone throwing and a few punches between the candidates’ supporters.

The relative peace on Monday came as a relief to many who feared intimidation could mar the polling process. Poll observers said turnout was high and the pressures seemed mostly implicit: Violence will return if people do not vote for Party Aceh.

But small things can make a big difference, said one election monitor in east Aceh.

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Official results could take more than a week, but a quick count on Monday evening showed Zaini to be leading the polls by a landslide.

It hardly seems surprising in Tiro, where Party Aceh flags line village roads and food stalls are painted in the party’s signature red and black. The party machine is pervasive, and that gives it a lot of influence among an uneducated electorate, says Banta Kamari, the head of the polling committee in Dayah Syarief village.

For many, there is no separating Party Aceh from GAM and GAM from the people. Muhammed Jafar, the head of Dayah Syarief, explains: “Party Aceh is like a big tree. They have roots deep in the ground. Even if someone tries to cut it, it can still grow branches.”