Indonesia vote: only surprise may come in remote Aceh

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

President Suharto of Indonesia expects few upsets today as the country's 94 million voters go to the polls in national legislature elections. However, the Islamic stronghold of Aceh, perched on the country's northernmost tip, may cause a few ripples in Jakarta, the capital.

Aceh's small Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP) is expected to defeat the ruling party, Golkar. This is not likely to change the overall results as Golkar seems certain of a landslide victory, perhaps increasing its 64 percent majority in the 400-seat national legislature. Under Indonesian law, the legislature must nominate a President by next March, and General Suharto is the only one who has declared his candidacy so far. He is widely expected to be renominated.

But defeat in today's election in this far flung Sumatran outpost, which has increasingly become an important source of oil and gas, would represent a blow to policies espoused by Suharto during his 21-year rule.

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Suharto has long maintained that the chief purpose of elections is one of ``nation building'' rather than choosing a government. His goal seems particularly important for the Golkar party now, as the country faces its worst recession in 10 years, following the fall in the price of oil, its main export.

According to some analysts, a possible Golkar defeat would also be of some significance given the disarray of the PPP at the national level. The party is riven by factionalism, and lacks strong leadership. It was also badly affected by the defection of its largest constituent member, Nahdlatul Ulama (the Muslim Scholars' Party or NU). This Muslim group is based on Java, Indonesia's most populous island, and is said to have more than 20 million followers, largely in rural areas.

However, politics in Aceh has always seemed more a product of local factors than national trends. As the first Muslim settlement in the archipelago, Aceh is considered a holy place throughout Indonesia, a country of more than 150 million people, with the world's largest number of Muslims. Many Indonesians still call Aceh ``the verandah of Mecca,'' the place where believers traditionally set sail on the hajj pilgrimage.

Fervently Islamic, Aceh has also been historically rebellious. It has a proud 700-year history as an independent sultanate. Aceh was the last place to fall to the Dutch in 1911, after a 30-year colonial war which cost some 250,000 lives.

In the decade after the Indonesian state gained independence in 1945, Aceh rose up against the government of then-President Sukharno. The people of Aceh, led by Daud Bereueh and his Darul Islam Movement rose up and briefly declared a separate Islamic state in the province before being brought to heel.

Mr. Daud, now bed-ridden and in his late 80s, still lives in Aceh. In the election run-up he has been keenly canvassed by Golkar, which recognizes that Daud's backing still counts for much in this conservative agriculture-based community of 3 million inhabitants.

Aceh's religious leaders, the ``ulamas,'' have also been a target for Golkar's campaigning. The secular elite, fled the province in a bitter power struggle after independence in the mid-1940s.

Both the Minister of Religion, Munawir Siadzali, and the NU's leader, Abdul Rahman Wahid have made the long trip from Jakarta to try to swing Aceh support behind Golkar.

One issue hotly discussed in Aceh has been Suharto's 1985 ruling effectively outlawing sectarian-based politics. Religion, ethnicity, and regional or foreign affairs are taboo campaign topics. But for many Achinese, religion is still the social and political touchstone.

Here, more than anywhere else in this vast nation, the debate has tended to concentrate on local issues. The recent closure of the ancient free port at Sabang was particularly sensitive. This trading center, formerly the site of smuggling and bureaucratic infighting, was a reminder for Achinese of their grand past, when Aceh's famous ``pepper ports'' handled half the world's production of this valuable spice.

Government officials, however, believe Aceh is fighting nothing more than a rear-guard action. Twenty years of development under President Suharto, they say, have already brought palpable change.

Not so long ago it took five days to travel to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, from Medan, north Sumatra's main commercial center. Today it takes just 10 hours.

Improved communications have exposed Aceh to new ideas. In one of the province's scarce bookshops, amid volumes of Islamic scholarship, it is possible to find the works of former Beatle, John Lennon.

The advances in education have been even more dramatic, with an explosion of state-run schools, the majority of them offering a secular curriculum.

``We've seen a slow reconciliation,'' says William Liddle, a professor from Ohio State University who is currently teaching in Aceh. ``In education and the economy there has been a real Indonesianization.''

Muslim girls still cover their heads, but it is the exception, not the rule. The ban on liquor, granted as part of the 1957 settlement with Daud, is overlooked in new hotels trying to attract tourists to this remote but beautiful spot.

Aceh's Governor Ibrahim Hassan is backing the trend.

``For far too long Aceh has been seen as the last word in stupidity and religious fanaticism,'' Mr. Hassan says.

``In the 17th century we were the fifth largest state in the Islamic world. Today we struggle to be the fifth [most important] region in Indonesia,'' he says.

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