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Aceh’s bitterly contested, but troubled elections

Indonesia’s province of Aceh went to the polls yesterday, in what has been a bitterly contested election for the position of governor. In Indonesia’s other provinces the position of governor is important but, in the autonomous province of Aceh, following a three-decade separatist war, it is critical.

As a result of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, Aceh was also the site of the world’s largest ever emergency relief program, at $9 billion. The tsunami devastated large areas of the heavily populated coastal regions of Aceh, leaving about 170,000 dead and missing.

As aid poured in and the 2005 peace agreement allocating a greater share of resource income was established, Aceh also experienced an economic boom. The former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) officer, Irwandi Yusuf, elected governor in 2007, used the funds to boost education, establish free medical care and otherwise lift Aceh’s development status. His unilateral moratorium on logging in Aceh’s rich rainforest was internationally hailed as ground-breaking.

But some of the funds, especially those intended for ex-combatants, were allocated slowly or incompletely, with much being controlled by former guerilla commanders. Former combatants therefore became more rather than less reliant on war-era patron-client relationships in order to survive.

The aid has now all but stopped, resource income is dropping and the economic boom has ended. Political competition for control of the diminishing resources is fierce.

It has been a common experience in post-conflict societies that the peace often falls short of the aspirations held for it. There is often a decline in post-conflict material resources as a result of destruction, capital flight and lack of residual capacity.

This economic decline has the effect of producing public bitterness and a scramble for those resources that remain. Aceh is showing itself to be little different.

GAM’s nominal “prime minister”, Malik Mahmud, returned from exile in Sweden to lead the political movement built on the basis of the guerilla movement. Despite agreeing that he would step down as political leader and allow the members of the organisation to elect a new leader and candidates, he did not do so.

Instead, turning the former guerilla army into the Aceh Party (PA), Malik has set himself up as king-maker. In 2007 he unilaterally overturned an organisational vote for a candidate for the position of governor and put his own candidate into the race. Malik’s candidate lost, but this has not deterred him from again doing so.

One consequence of such anti-democratic interference has been that the former guerilla movement has deeply divided. A further consequence of the split has been a disturbing amount of political violence, with several directly related deaths.

This violence is set against a backdrop of widespread anger towards Jakarta for incompletely implementing the 2005 peace agreement. Many Acehnese attribute this failure to Irwandi, even though Malik signed the agreement and had carriage of it.

PA is also much more organised than it was during the 2007 elections and Malik’s selected candidate is GAM’s former “foreign minister”, Dr Zaini Abdullah.

PA’s more formal organisation has been reflected, in part, in the creation of a new, uniformed militia. Though the “camouflage” design — patterned maps of Aceh — on their military-style uniforms is in the red, white and black of the old GAM flag, there is little mistaking the militia’s praetorian nature. Having committed to an open democracy during the 2005 peace process, Malik has turned to a more militaristic approach to politics.

In Jakarta, while there is some disquiet at this new militarisation, many are happy to see the former guerilla movement divided and for the increasingly dominant wing, manifested as PA, turn to less salubrious Jakarta-style tactics.

Election results will take a couple of days to come in and, with no reliable polling, the outcome of the election can’t be predicted with any certainty. But it does look as though PA’s organisation muscle will defeat Irwandi’s social democracy approach to redressing Aceh’s history of being subjected to Jakarta’s often oppressive rule.

Post-conflict politics is often harsh and Aceh is proving no exception to that tendency. The question is whether the high degree of freedom achieved through the 2005 peace process will now be in jeopardy from many of the people who had fought for it.

*Damien Kingsbury was adviser to the Free Aceh Movement in the 2005 peace process

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