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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006, 08:32 GMT
Aceh votes for major change
By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Banda Aceh

Irwandi Yusuf
Irwandi Yusuf was jailed on treason charges
On the streets of Banda Aceh, capital of the Indonesian province of Aceh, the stalls and coffee shops were open as usual, but the atmosphere was quiet, almost eerily calm.

Certainly there was no sense of the political upheaval that hit on Monday, when former separatist leader Irwandi Yusuf appeared to have been swept to power as the province's next governor.

Official results are not due out until next month. But according to two separate election monitoring groups, Irwandi is set to win easily, marking a remarkable transformation for a man who two years ago was in prison on treason charges.

The elections for governor and other local positions marked the first time Acehnese had been able to directly elect their representatives.

They were a result of a peace deal signed last year between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement, or Gam, which ended decades of separatist violence.

The peace deal came about largely because of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 170,000 people in Aceh, flooded Irwandi's prison, and added a new urgency to resolving the violence.

We led the struggle for Aceh. That struggle hasn't gone away; it's just moved into the political sphere
Irwandi Yusuf

The agreement led to a surreal election campaign, with former separatists - such as Irwandi - running against their erstwhile enemies, the military men and representatives from the main, Jakarta-based parties.

But now that Irwandi appears to have won, his supporters are quick to explain why.

Mohammed Hatta beamed at the news of Irwandi's unconfirmed win.

"He's an honest man," he said, "he's independent; not an ambassador from Jakarta. And he's a man of the people - he defends our rights."

Province on the north-western tip of Sumatra
High percentage of Muslims, and only province where Sharia law allowed
Separatist rebels fought decades-long campaign against Jakarta
December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated region
New peace talks led to August 2005 agreement
December 2006 elections for governor and district leaders

Further up the street, a group of friends at a local coffee shop agreed. "He brought about this peace," they said, "so he deserves to win."

It seems many Acehnese credit Irwandi with delivering these elections. He played a crucial role in the peace negotiations last year, but also in the 30-year conflict that many Acehnese view as defending their autonomy.

That past is something Irwandi did not shy away from on the campaign trail, either.

"It's one of the reasons why people support me," he told the BBC. "We led the struggle for Aceh. That struggle hasn't gone away; it's just moved into the political sphere."

Uncertain prospect

Irwandi makes no secret of his plans to reopen negotiations with Jakarta on implementing all aspects of the peace agreement.

Women in Lamlhom village
Acehnese now want to see the economic benefits of peace

Earlier this year, the Indonesian parliament passed a new law on governing Aceh, which codified the terms of the peace deal.

It was - eventually - accepted by Gam. But many in Aceh still feel bruised by what they see as significant differences between what was agreed in the peace deal and what was passed into law.

But if Jakarta may be uneasy about the prospect of such negotiations, Gam's political leaders will be watching carefully too.

The organisation has its eye firmly fixed on the future, especially on national elections due to be held in 2009.

It has already announced plans to create a political party in the next six months.

Irwandi's election has shown that the Gam label can win votes. But will the public feel the same in two years time? Much of that depends on how Irwandi handles the challenges ahead of him.

Key among those challenges is economic help to rebuild and reintegrate the war-torn province.

He will need to make sure aid is distributed fairly between victims of the conflict and victims of the tsunami. He will need to see that thousands of former combatants are reintegrated properly back into society. And he will need to ensure that Acehnese really begin to feel the economic benefits of peace in their daily life.

That is a lot to expect, especially in a place where a lack of coordination is matched by a prevalent suspicion of official corruption.

And perhaps that explains some of the calmness in Aceh this morning. Peace deals have failed before. No one is going to bank on this one until it is safe to do so.

UN chief encouraged by Aceh poll
12 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Aceh wary over new Sharia police
08 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Viewpoints: Aceh's first elections
06 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Election campaign begins in Aceh
24 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Acehnese mark one year of peace
15 Aug 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Indonesia
18 Oct 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Indonesia
18 Jul 06 |  Country profiles

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