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Resounding victory for democracy in Aceh

14 January, 2007
The local elections in Aceh on 11 December 2006 resulted in convincing victories for independent candidates. Irwandi Yusuf and Muhammad Nazar secured the positions of governor and vice-governor while other key posts such as district heads (bupati ) in North and East Aceh and mayors of the cities of Lhok Seumawe and Sabang were also won by independents. The Acehnese voted for a dramatic change in the political landscape.

Under Indonesian law, there is no place for independent candidates in elections but the recently adopted LOGA (Law on the Governance of Aceh) made provision for such an option. As a result, independent candidates who obtained the necessary initial number of supporters were able to stand and they gained considerable support from the electorate. It is understood that LOGA will be amended to enable local parties to contest future elections. This is a precedent that is bound to reverberate in other parts of Indonesia.

As things stand, political parties in Indonesia need to have branches in at least half of the provinces to be able to compete in elections. This restricts elections to national parties and blocks the way for local parties.

No second round needed

The governorship in Aceh was a much coveted position, especially since the tsunami when there has been a strong emphasis on reconstruction and reconciliation. All the larger national parties such as GOLKAR, PPP, PAN, PBB, PDI-P, PBR and PKS fielded candidates. The candidates were nominated in pairs for each of the top positions being contested. Several of the pairs were independents while one pair was a combination of a party representative and an independent.

The official result, announced on 2 January, was that Irwandi Yusuf and Muhammad Nazar had won with 768,745 votes or 38.20 per cent of the 2,012.370 votes cast. They will be sworn in on 8 February. They scored very well in sixteen of the 21 sub-districts and cities. The runners up with 16.62 per cent of the votes were Humam Hamid and Hasbi Abdullah, a combination of the PPP and an independent. GOLKAR, which is the largest party in Indonesia, fielded Malik Raden and Sayed Fuad who came third with only 13.97 per cent of the votes. Two generals, both former commanders in Aceh, performed woefully. Retired generals Tamlicha Ali and Harmen Nuriqmar won only 3.99 per cent while retired generals Djali Yusuf and Syauqas Rahmatillah got even less, at 3.26 per cent, placing them at the bottom the pile. Another independent couple Ghazali and Salahuddin al Fata, achieved a respectable 7.80 per cent, despite a lack of funds and with no electoral machine to help them. Ghazali Abbas, a former outspoken MP in Jakarta still has quite a lot of support in Acehnese civil society who remember him as the only parliamentarian to speak out against military brutality during the worst periods of the conflict in Aceh.

The opinion polls and predictions by some experts and Aceh watchers were way off the mark. The Humam Hamid-Hasbi Abdullah team were seen by many as the favourites while the combination of Azwar Abubakar, former governor of Aceh, and Nasir Djamil, a young national MP from the PKS were also seen as potential winners. But the results revealed that the electorate voted for radical change while striking a heavy blow against the national parties based in Jakarta.

According to the election law, if no pair obtained 25 per cent of the votes, a second round would have been needed. With such a strong field of candidates, most observers predicted that no one would reach the threshold and a second round would take place in February. But this proved to be wrong, with the Irwandi-Nazar team substantially exceeding the 25 per cent threshold, with more than double the votes of the runners up. The winners won not only in GAM strongholds but also elsewhere, in areas often seen as being either neutral or with weak support for GAM.

Of the 21 districts and cities, only five went to non-independent candidates. Due to the complicated demography of Aceh over the last few years, many thousands had left Aceh during the years of conflict but returned home after the peace process. Many survivors of the tsunami disaster had lost their personal documents and could not register in time to vote. Of the 2.6 million eligible voters, only 2,166,033 cast their votes.

Free and democratic elections
The elections took place without any major disturbances. Monitoring teams from many parts of the world confirmed that the election was orderly and peaceful. Observers from the European Parliament described the elections as a victory for democracy in Indonesia. The only major flaw was the many unregistered voters, but their protests were directed through the proper channels and there were no demonstrations or unrest.

Bearing in mind that three years ago, Irwandi and Nazar were both in jail as political prisoners and military operations against GAM were in full swing, the elections signal a huge change in Aceh.

Since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding in 2005, Jakarta has abandoned the security approach and has accepted GAM as a partner in the peace process. As a result, GAM members and supporters are at last enjoying the same basic rights as other citizens in Aceh.

The independent candidates
Most of the independent candidates projected clear political programmes, in particular members of GAM and SIRA (Aceh Referendum Information Centre), which had advocated the holding of a referendum on the political future of Aceh in the late nineties.

Irwandi, the elected governor, has a colourful background. He joined GAM only eight years ago, in 1998, after returning from the US where he studied veterinary science. He became GAM liaison officer in Jakarta and was arrested in 2003 and given a nine-year jail sentence. He escaped from Keudah Prison during the tsunami on 26 December 2004 and was a member of the GAM delegation at the Helsinki peace talks. After the MoU was signed in August 2005, he became the GAM representative in AMM, the Aceh Monitoring Mission, the body responsible for implementation of the MoU.

Initially Irwandi did not intend to stand for the governorship but developments in GAM compelled him to do so. The old GAM leadership, including those living in exile in Sweden, expressed support for the duo Humam Hamid, an Acehnese intellectual with a good track record, and Hasbi Abdullah, a former political prisoner, a well-known GAM activist. They have become known as the H2O duo. Since the peace process, all GAM ex-combatants have been organised in a non-military structure known as KPA (Komisi Peralihan Aceh or Aceh Transitional Commission). The highest structure within GAM is the majelis, which is a kind of parliament. Some key members of the majelis promoted the H2O duo, but this combination was rejected by the GAM rank-and-file, organised within the KPA.

After a brief period of uncertainty, the Irwandi-Nazar duo emerged as the choice of the rank and file. Despite the initial support by the GAM leadership for H2O, the rank-and-file support secured victory for Irwandi and his running mate.

Muhammad Nazar was the chair of SIRA, the Aceh Referendum Information Centre, from 1998. In 1999 he was arrested after organising a huge mass rally in November 1999. He was released in 2002 but soon afterwards, martial law was re-introduced and Nazar landed in jail again after being sentenced to eight years imprisonment. As a result of the signing of the MoU, he was released on 31 August 2005.

The relationship between GAM and SIRA is quite complex. On one hand it could be said that SIRA has functioned as the peaceful political wing of GAM but at the same time it has often operated rather independently of GAM. Key players in SIRA were student activists and their top leaders are still in their early thirties.

The other independent candidates have a similar background. Munawar Liza, formerly the GAM representative in the US, together with Islamuddin, a SIRA activist, won the election for mayor in the harbour city of Sabang. The same occurred in the second biggest city, Lhok Seumawe, where two well-known GAM activists, Munir Usman and Suaidi Yahya, were easily elected. In other places such as Aceh Timur, two independent pairs were fielded: Muslim Abdullah, a local GAM activist, and Nasruddin, a SIRA activist won the seats of district and vice district chiefs. In the Aceh Raya district, the independent candidates Azhar Abdurrachman and Zamzami A. Rani were elected. In the GAM strongholds of Pidie and Aceh Utara the pairs of Mirza Ismael and Nazir Adam and Ilyas al Hamid and Syarifuddin won large majorities.

Significance of the victory.

The significance of the electoral victory of the independent candidates should not be under-estimated. The defeat of the national parties shows that the Acehnese opted for political change and for a new direction. It also means that money politics, a common feature in Jakarta, has been rejected. The independent candidates campaigned on shoestring budgets while their supporters assembled spontaneously, by contrast with the traditional mobilisation of large crowds by national parties, transporting large numbers of people to their rallies on hired buses and trucks. The independent candidates also lacked the funds to produce leaflets and banners. As it turned out, the Aceh electorate was not impressed by the many banners held aloft on behalf of the national party candidates.

The Acehnese electorate has shown a defiance of Jakarta politics since the early seventies. While the entire country was arm-twisted into accepting GOLKAR, the ruling party, the Acehnese stubbornly turned away from GOLKAR and opted for the PPP, a Muslim party federation and one of the three parties allowed to function under Suharto.

It took more than 20 years for the Suharto regime to push GOLKAR down the throats of the Acehnese. It was not until the last Suharto-era elections in the nineties, when DOM (military operations) were in full swing, that the Acehnese grudgingly accepted the dominance of GOLKAR, helped along by huge injections of money. However, in the post-Suharto period, when political freedoms were granted, the Acehnese quickly abandoned their GOLKAR allegiance. While the trend in most parts of Indonesia was to vote primarily for the two secular parties, GOLKAR and the PDI-P, the Acehnese defied this trend and lent their support to a wide variety of Muslim political parties and to GOLKAR.

The December elections gave the Acehnese a real choice, for the first time. As a result, their allegiance went in large part to GAM. The victory of the Irwandi-Nazar team can be seen as a victory for GAM or more generally as a victory for a change in the political landscape of Aceh. It can also be seen that support for GAM far exceeds its membership. The official number of former GAM combatants is put at 3,000, while GAM membership is up to ten times as much. But the support GAM won in the elections, discounting the non-registered voters, was at least 25 times the size of the membership. Many observers were doubtful about the extent of the support for GAM, but the election results removed any uncertainty.

The 30 years of war and conflict substantially affected the political views and perceptions of the Acehnese. They have become more critical than voters elsewhere in Indonesia and have also developed a strong desire for reform, self governance, and a say in running their own economy. The MoU provides all this and it was GAM that negotiated the agreement in Helsinki. As a result, the Acehnese showed gratitude by voting for the independent candidates.

Consequences for other provinces
Other provinces, in particular West Papua, which has also been granted special autonomy status, do not enjoy the chance of having independent candidates and local parties.

Now that there has been a breakthrough in Aceh, it will be more difficult for the national parliament in Jakarta to insist that other provinces should not have the same option. First reactions in Jakarta were mixed, non-committal and along the lines of wait-and-see. Nevertheless, apart from ultra nationalist voices within the PDI-P, there has been little in the way of anger or dismay. Vice-President Yusuf Kalla came to Irwandi’s defence, saying he was confident that the new government in Aceh would establish relations with the centre, as other provinces have done.

Press comments
The press in Jakarta has generally welcomed the election of Irwandi and Nazar, commenting rather extensively on the defeat of the major Jakarta parties. An editorial in Media Indonesia bore the title: ‘Aceh slaps the face of the political parties’ while Suara Pembaruan wrote an editorial on: ‘The demise of the supremacy of political parties’. They say it all. It is to be expected that the national press will continue to focus on the performance of the Aceh leaders and their future relations with the government in Jakarta.

General elections are due to be held in 2009 when the Acehnese will choose their representatives to the national parliament as well as voting for local assemblies. By that time, GAM and other groups will probably have already re-constituted themselves as local parties and be in an even better position to threaten the existence of the national parties. While it is too early to make predictions, it it not difficult to foresee that there could be more drastic changes in the political landscape.

AMM, a success story
The AMM (Aceh Monitoring Mission) was set up as the result of the MoU signed in Helsinki and came into being on 15 September 2005. It was set up by the European Union and ASEAN to monitor the peace agreement. Its initial mandate was extended several times and it completed its mission on 15 December 2006, four days after the local elections.

In the sixteen months of its existence, there were no serious violations of the MoU, a reflection of the professionalism of the AMM staff as well as the political will of the Indonesian government and GAM to ensure that the peace process was a success.

AMM undertook the decommissioning of GAM weapons and monitored the withdrawal of Indonesian non-organic troops from Aceh. It also functioned as mediator between GAM and the Indonesian government and was able to respond swiftly whenever problems occurred. The AMM monitored the drafting and adoption of LOGA through the local and national parliaments.

The AMM is regarded by peace and conflict resolution experts as a model for the management and resolution of conflicts elsewhere in the world.

There were some weaknesses, however, such as a lack of contacts and coordination with the different groups in Acehnese civil society and poor coordination regarding the reintegration of GAM ex-combatants into society.

The peace process and the democratisation of Aceh will need to continue. Other institutions will be needed to take over the work of the AMM. The peace process is not only a matter for the Acehnese and the Jakarta government. The international community also has a responsibility to sustain the commitment to peace in Aceh.