Aceh Elections Help Consolidate Peace

Aceh staged landmark elections on December 11, 2006—barely two years after the 2004 tsunami devastated the province at the northern tip of Sumatra, and 16 months after a peace agreement with the central government in Jakarta that ended a three-decade armed conflict. Some 2.6 million people were eligible to cast votes for Aceh governor, the heads of 19 regencies, and mayoral offices across the province.

In dispatching election monitors, the European Union continued its critical support for peacemaking and post-tsunami rebuilding in Aceh, totaling roughly 300 million Euros. Of that amount, 53 million Euros went to humanitarian aid, 207 million Euros to reconstruction, and 40 million to support the peace process. The EU Election Observation Mission involves more than 70 observers and is headed by Glyn Ford, Member of the European Parliament.

Against all expectations, a clear front-runner in the gubernatorial race emerged in unofficial surveys of the vote, apparently obviating the need for a second round of balloting. Irwandi Yusuf, a young leader of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), appears set to win the first direct elections for governor of Aceh. The Indonesia Survey Institute predicted that Irwandi—one of eight candidates for governor—would capture 39 percent of the vote. (Election rules require a second round of voting if no candidate receives more than 25 percent.) Official results will not be released until 2 January 2007.

Irwandi was jailed for treason in 2003, and only narrowly escaped drowning in prison when the tsunami struck. He gained considerable stature in the peace negotiations and in jointly overseeing the implementation of the August 2005 peace deal—gun decommissionings and troop withdrawals—with his government counterpart, Major General Bambang Darmono. Many Acehnese voters gave credit to Irwandi for these important achievements.

Analysis ahead of the elections had been marked by reports of splits within GAM—between older and younger members, and between the exile leadership based in Sweden and cadres on the ground.

Irwandi has been emphasizing that although the armed struggle for Acehnese rights is over, the struggle for Aceh “hasn't gone away; it's just moved into the political sphere.” Reflecting widespread unhappiness with the Aceh governing law passed by the Indonesian parliament in July 2006, he is reported to intend to reopen negotiations with Jakarta on implementing the 2005 peace agreement. The law was supposed to embody key terms of the peace agreement, yet in the view of many Acehnese falls considerably short in some of its provisions.

Irwandi will face massive challenges in driving forward a stalled reconstruction process rife with corruption, reintegrating former combatants amid reports that some have turned to crime due to a lack of jobs, ensuring that aid is distributed fairly between different population groups—particularly between the competing needs of conflict victims and tsunami victims, and seeing to it that everyone has a stake in continued peace. How well he fares will have a critical impact on his and GAM’s chances in national elections set for 2009.