On 9 April, Indonesia’s province of Aceh will hold elections for its local legislature. These elections are the culmination of a peace agreement reached in August 2005, which ended three decades of separatist war and saw the conversion of the arm Free Aceh Movement into a political party, Partai Aceh (Aceh Party), within a democratic framework. The peace agreement followed the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed around 170,000 people and devastated much of the province.
Set against Aceh’s violent past, the 2005 peace agreement has been largely successful. In late 2006, there were elections for a local governor and district administrators. Free Aceh Movement candidates won about 70% of the municipalities as well as the governorship.
Since then, there have been several violent incidents, mostly involving criminal activity, although some with more overtly political overtones. Over recent weeks, at least four people have been killed in more than 13 attacks against Aceh Party members and buildings.
Despite its slow if general reform in recent years, the prevailing view is that elements of the Indonesian military (TNI) are behind the attacks. Senior TNI officers in Aceh have expressed concern that a strong win for the Aceh Party would again fan the flames of separatism, and some military figures have admitted tearing down Aceh Party flags and banners. Aceh Party leaders say separatism is firmly off their agenda.
Regardless of such ham-fisted efforts to suppress it, the Aceh Party is expected to remain popular, with estimates of its vote ranging between 40 and 70%.
A 40% win would mean a legislative coalition with the second most popular party, SIRA (Independent Voice of the People of Aceh), which should receive between 15 and 20% of the vote. SIRA’s younger, more urban support base has long been close to the Aceh Party’s older, more rural supporters, each taking a different approach to their earlier approaches to achieving independence.
The third most likely popular party, the Aceh People’s Party, is also close to both the Aceh Party and SIRA, and could also join a coalition legislature. Each of these parties are broadly social-democratic and reformist in outlook.
The outcome of the Aceh elections will likely reflect Aceh’s political development in a more open, if sometimes still troubled, political environment. The fact that these elections will take place will also reflect on Indonesia’s own evolutionary process of political maturation.
Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury is with the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University, was adviser to the Free Aceh Movement during the 2005 Aceh peace talks, and has published extensively on Indonesian politics.