Informal results show that elections in Indonesia’s tsunami-devastated and war-ravaged province of Aceh have dumped the incumbent governor and put in office the political party of the former separatist guerilla movement. This outcome marks a major victory for the political vehicle of the former separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the Aceh Party (PA).

In a sometimes violent campaign process, in which 13 people were killed and intimidation was widespread, preliminary results show that former GAM “foreign minister” Dr Zaini Abdullah and his deputy, former GAM military commander Muzakir Manaf, won 54% of the vote in a five-cornered contest. Incumbent governor and former GAM intelligence chief Irwandi Yusuf secured 34% of the vote.

Perhaps most importantly, the election results confirmed that support for the former separatist organisation remains high, with the two factions of the old GAM receiving 88% of the vote. A third candidate, incumbent deputy governor Muhamad Nazar, who headed a pro-independence umbrella organisation, received a further 4% of the vote.

Despite Aceh’s massive rebuilding program following the 2004 tsunami and greater access to resource income from the 2005 peace agreement that ended three decades of separatist war, many Acehnese remained unhappy with Jakarta’s incomplete implementation of the peace agreement. Despite the peace agreement being beyond the scope of the governor, this issue helped build momentum for political change.

Zaini, Mukakir and Irwandi, among others, were at the meeting near Stockholm in late 2005 in which GAM’s new political manifestation was planned and its policy platform outlined. It was at this meeting that GAM’s political head, the somewhat divisive former “prime minister”, Malik Mahmud, agreed to retire from active politics. This process was overseen by GAM’s founder, Teuku Hasan di Tiro, who gave it his blessing.

However, far from retiring, when the organisation elected a candidate for governor, Malik unilaterally overturned the decision, splitting the old guerilla movement. Malik put forward Zaini’s less well-known brother, Hasbi, and the representative of a Jakarta-based party to compete with Irwandi, who drew support from his status as a senior GAM figure in the field.

Following Hasbi’s 2007 election defeat, Malik’s began organising the political party that had been planned at the Stockholm meeting. This new “Aceh Party” drew heavily on the former structure and membership of the old GAM, giving it thousands of loyal members across Aceh’s largely rural hinterland.

During the election campaign, flanked by a uniformed guard, Zaini and Mukakir were able to draw on Zaini’s legitimacy as a former GAM field doctor and subsequent senior political figure, and Muzakir’s past as GAM’s top military leader following the death of his predecessor, Abdullah Syafei, in 2004.

As governor, Irwandi had implemented major elements of the Stockholm policy, including expanding education, providing free health care and medicine and implementing a ban on logging of Aceh’s rainforests. Malik responded by building the new Aceh Party as his personal power base. The old GAM split, although with the majority remaining with the new Aceh Party.

Recalling their loyalty to GAM, many of Irwandi’s earlier supporters defected to the Aceh Party. One Aceh Party member who went the other way and defected to Irwnadi’s camp was murdered while sitting in a café. Bombings, house burnings and intimidation became the staple of the drawn-out campaign, extended through Aceh Party legal challenges to Irwandi’s candidature.

The question now is, having won the elections and secured power, how Zaini and Muzakir will rule in Aceh. In this is the as yet unanswered question, as to whether they will rule in the interests of all Acehnese, or whether they end up being seen as acting on the wishes of the Aceh Party’s puppet master, Malik Mahmud.

*Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University’s School of International and Political Studies was an adviser to the Free Aceh Movement in the 2005 peace process