Aceh, a province of Indonesia at the northern tip of Sumatra, is holding its first direct elections for the posts of governor and deputy governor on 11th December, as well as district elections.
Direct gubernatorial elections have recently been introduced across Indonesia. However, the unique feature of the Aceh elections is that local parties will be permitted to stand. Indonesia has stringent criteria for the registration of political parties that require them to be active in at least half the country's provinces. This effectively bars regional separatist groups from participating. This special concession to Aceh's elections is the result of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gam) in 2005. These are the only such elections in Indonesia, as Aceh obtained special regional status as a result of a 2005 agreement between the government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gam) to end a long-standing insurgency.
What are the issues?
Aceh suffered badly from the 2004 tsunami, and questions about reconstruction are still very topical. Aceh has reserves of natural gas and oil, as well as some coal. The Acehnese have remained relatively impoverished and resentful of the profits being reaped by central government. This too is a bone of contention.
The tsunami clear-up gave impetus to peace moves and led to Gam peace agreement, and to the special autonomy status approved by the Indonesian parliament in 2006. Independence is not a direct issue in this election, but Gam is using the vote partly to test the degree of support for this broader aim at the Aceh parliamentary elections in 2009.
Gam former fighters are waiting for money from the Indonesian government and European Union promised under the peace agreement to help them integrate into society. In many cases the Gam-affiliated groups entrusted with disbursing the funds have failed to do so, thereby creating animosity.
Aceh is the most devoutly Muslim province of Indonesia. This has increased in the aftermath of the tsunami. Elements of Islamic Sharia law have been officially adopted into the legal system since 2003. Some parties campaigning for further moves in this direction are standing at this election. Gam has no Islamist agenda.
Is there a Gam candidate?
The law on Aceh's special status allows independent candidates without party affiliation to stand, uniquely in Indonesia. This led to a split in Gam, as the veteran and largely émigré leadership sought to broaden its appeal by endorsing one set of candidates with other party affiliations, while Aceh-based younger leaders backed two Gam members standing as independents.
The veteran leaders are supporting social and environmental campaigner Humam Hamid. He is not a Gam member, and is also the candidate of the Indonesia-wide United Development Party (PPP), a group with an Islamic orientation that served as the loyal opposition during the dictatorship of President Suharto. They are backing university economist Hasbi Abdullah as deputy governor on the same ticket. He was an independence campaigner and spent two terms in jail, but activists complain that he has done little for the cause since his release in 1998 and is not a Gam member.
The younger Gam leadership backs Irwandi Yusuf, a US-educated former insurgent and prisoner who worked with the Helsinki Monitoring Mission that led to the peace agreement. Muhammad Nazar, the head of the pro-Gam Information Centre for a Referendum on Aceh (SIRA), is his running-mate.
Who else is standing?
Polls in late November had Humam and Hasbi level-pegging with two other party tickets: the moderate Muslim Muhammadiyah movement's PAN candidate Azwar Abubakar, and Malik Raden of Golkar, the ruling party under Suharto.
This indicates that the Irwandi/Nazar ticket is too narrow to appeal to non-Gam voters, while Gam factional fighting - which led to a physical attack on Humam in an Irwandi stronghold on 22nd November - has harmed both Gam campaigns.
Abubakar's running mate is Nasir Jamil of the small Islamist party PKS, which has a reputation for effective campaigning against corruption.
Malik is very much the Indonesian establishment candidate, with the support of the present ruling Partai Demokrat of President Yudhoyono and the main PDIP opposition party.
How fair has the campaign been?
The independent election commission (KIP) and the official election oversight body Panwasil have highlighted concerns about campaigning in mosques during Ramadan, which was meant to be suspended, as well as the accuracy of voter registration lists. Overall, the campaign has been marked by little more than rhetoric, with only isolated violent incidents. A poll in September-October showed 93% of Acehnese convinced that the elections will help to cement peace.
What is the likely result?
With the Humam-Husbi, Golkar and PAN candidates neck-and-neck it is too early to say. One fear is that a narrow win for one of the non-GAM candidates might prompt some ex-fighters to abandon the political process. It is more likely that if Gam loses it will reorganize itself and prepare for the 2009 parliamentary elections in the hope of capitalizing on the difficulties of the incumbent governor.
What about the local elections?
Gam is contesting the district election throughout Aceh, except for Singkil in the southwest. Observers say it has a good chance of winning in Pidie and a fair chance in East Aceh and Sabang.
The Gam split is less significant at this level, as voters are more interested in local issues, but it still exists. The leadership and the young guard have rival candidates for head of Pidie district, for example.
The establishment candidate Haji Tagore Abubakar, with support from Golkar, PDIP and other parties, is leading the poll in Bener Meriah district, which is only 20% Acehnese.
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