In tsunami's wake, a peaceful Aceh holds first election

Voters in the battle-scarred Indonesian province of Aceh go to the polls Monday, nearly two years after a devastating tsunami scoured its coastline and released an outpouring of international aid for the stricken survivors.

The ballot is the first since the signing in August 2005 of a landmark peace accord between the Indonesian government and armed rebels, who agreed to lay down their weapons in return for political autonomy for Aceh. Former rebels are competing in electoral races for the governorship and 19 district mayors and regents.

The presence of such figures on the ballot, and their public campaign to get elected, is a remarkable turnaround for Aceh, where the struggle for power has long been equated with fear, intimidation, and bloodshed. A trouble-free vote, and the acceptance of the outcome, would be an important step forward in the peace process after three decades of conflict and false starts.

"If we have the right leader, the peace will continue, I'm sure of that. Aceh can be prosperous and peaceful," says Ramli bin Buhari, a businessman from Pidie.

A high turnout is expected among the 2.6 million eligible voters, including hundreds of thousands of left homeless after the tsunami. Thousands of election monitors, including a European Union team, will be deployed at polling booths, which close mid-afternoon. Early results from poll samples are expected by early evening.

Under the peace accord, the rebel Free Aceh Movement, known by the Indonesian acronym GAM, agreed to disarm and demobilize 3,000 combatants, in exchange for a withdrawal of around 25,000 Indonesian soldiers and paramilitary police who were widely accused of human-rights abuses. The accord also called for local elections to be held in 2006, setting the stage for GAM to enter the political process.

But a major rift between exiled GAM leaders and a new generation of fighters and activists has prevented the movement from fielding a united candidate. Instead, two competing tickets for governor are claiming to represent GAM, which has opted to remain neutral after initially endorsing one candidate. By splitting their support base, say observers, the result could be that neither wins the governorship.

Tensions between the two camps spilled over on the eve of the two-week campaign when a gang of thugs assaulted Humam Hamid, one of the gubernatorial candidates, in a stronghold of Irwandi Yusuf, a young fighter and ex-political prisoner who heads the rival pro-GAM ticket. But conciliatory rhetoric from senior leaders in the movement, who insisted on neutrality between the two camps, helped to tamp down tensions, and the campaign has been smooth, with only minor reports of intimidation.

Analysts say this internal friction will complicate GAM's goal of dissolving its military command and transforming into a political party capable of ruling Aceh via the ballot box. "GAM never had a strong political wing. It was overwhelmingly a military operation," says Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta.

Sharia law, which Aceh implemented in 2000, has also emerged as a backdrop to the elections as enforcement has been stepped up in recent years, including patrols by special "morality police" that report directly to the governor's office. While candidates have made almost no mention of the traditional Islamic law, the new policing force is a bone of contention among ordinary Achenese.

Under Indonesian election law, the winning candidate must garner over 25 percent of the vote, or face a run off against the second-placed ticket. With eight candidates in the gubernatorial race, including the two pro-GAM tickets, a second round appears likely.

GAM's big election gamble

On a broiling afternoon last week, around 2,000 of Mr. Yusuf's supporters sat in a park in Banda Aceh facing a rickety wooden stage where stocky bodyguards formed a cordon behind the candidate. His speech was punctuated with references to his role in the peace accord and the promise of economic rewards in future for Aceh, which is among the poorest provinces in Indonesia despite its abundant oil and gas reserves.

Yusuf, who is running as an independent with a former political prisoner as his running mate, urged voters not to be seduced by candidates from large political parties with more money to splurge on the campaign trail. "When you run to them in the future and ask about their promises for more housing, they would answer, 'We already gave you clothing and food,' " he admonished.

Yusuf characterizes the rift within GAM as a generational divide between senior political leaders in Europe, who formed a government in exile in the 1970s, and younger combatants and activists who resisted harsh military crackdowns. But he insists that whoever wins the vote, the peace process will continue, provided Indonesia keeps its promises.

"There is an expectation from the people (of Aceh) that a candidate from GAM will win the election. If they don't win after a fair election, people must accept this. GAM will accept anyone who wins because of a fair election," he says.

Analysts say defeat for Aceh's former rebels at the ballot box would be a wake-up call for GAM and could spur its transformation ahead of the next political contest in three years time when the local legislature is up for grabs. "This is a dry run for 2009. That's the real prize. When you control the local parliament, you have budgetary power and can shape the laws of an autonomous region," says Ms. Jones.

Guerrilla to groom

As the campaign wrapped up last week – candidates are forbidden to stump during the final three days – Herry Nurmansyah, a former GAM fighter, had more important matters on his mind. One year after leaving his jungle camp and going back to his village outside Banda Aceh, the former GAM fighter was to marry his high-school sweetheart, Julisa.

On Saturday, he sat stiffly in a traditional black tunic and crown on a bubblegum-pink throne with his new wife, whose hands and feet were painted in henna swirls. She dabbed tears from her heavily lacquered face as relatives crowded around the couple.

Among the visitors crammed into the room inside the bride's house were Mr. Nurmansyah's former comrades in arms, including his unit commander, Tuengku Hamzah, who had come to bless the newly-weds. Hamzah had spent the previous weeks canvassing votes for Yusuf, and was confident that the political spoils would be coming his way – just desserts for toughing it out in the jungle.

Nurmansyah, who recently found a job building houses for tsunami survivors, had more modest aims. "I just hope this election will bring change and benefit for all of us. We don't want to have to take up weapons again," he says.

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