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Votes not violence: rebuilding post-disaster Aceh

The massive but largely benign earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Wednesday left millions in Aceh reliving the nightmare that engulfed them on Boxing Day 2004. On that day, a similarly large earthquake…

Aceh’s provincial elections will test democratic progress. AAP/Hotli Simanjutak

The massive but largely benign earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Wednesday left millions in Aceh reliving the nightmare that engulfed them on Boxing Day 2004. On that day, a similarly large earthquake sent a wall of water across the low lands, killing about 180,000 people.

The earthquake, and fear of another massive tsunami, came just two days after a local election and a major political upheaval. This only added poignancy to the otherwise frightening occasion.

In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Aceh separatists from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) reached a peace agreement with the government in Jakarta, ushering in a period of rebuilding and relative peace in electoral politics.

The peace agreement

A fisherman pushes his boat onto higher ground in the village of Lhok Seudu, Aceh AAP/Holti Simanjutak

Contrary to popular belief, the peace agreement was not a consequence of the tsunami as such. An agreement to start peace talks had actually been reached just days before the tsunami struck.

There is no doubt, however, that the devastation caused by the tsunami caused both GAM and the Indonesian government to make an extra effort to find a solution to the three decade separatist war. And the international community made clear to both parties that if they failed to reach a peace agreement there would be little support for helping Indonesia’s reconstruction effort in Aceh.

The peace agreement produced, among other things, a democratic outcome.

Local parties and candidates were allowed to stand for election. GAM candidates won nearly half of the local legislature, forming a coalition with the Jakarta-based Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

A party divided

Internal divisions within GAM became evident during the peace talks and surfaced over the selection of a candidate for the position of Aceh’s governor. There was agreement to found a new political party based on the old GAM, but divisions soon opened up over political control and vision for the organisation.

In this, GAM reflected a common experience with former independence movements that brought together disparate groups of people under a common cause. Once the cause was gone, these groups gravitated to their more natural constituencies.

In GAM’s case, impetus for gravitating separately was spurred when former nominal “prime minister” Malik Mahmud, overturned a democratic vote for a candidate and imposed his own candidate. This was rejected by a significant section of GAM, which in turn backed former GAM intelligence chief Irwandi Yusef, who subsequently won.

With Irwandi ensconced as governor, Malik turned back to the former military organisation, reorganising it as a new political party. The party’s structure closely followed the order and hierarchy of the old guerrilla organisation.

Malik had agreed to leave active politics, but selected his deputy, former GAM (nominal) “foreign minister”, Zaini Abdullah, as the new Aceh Party’s candidate, with his deputy being GAM’s former military commander, Muzakir Manaf.

Violence and the democratic process

Irwandi Yusef and his wife Darwati Gani after voting at a polling station AAP/Holti Simanjutak

Irwandi had tried to seek an accommodation with the Aceh Party but Malik, angered by Irwandi’s disloyalty – his independence and success in 2007 – rejected the overture. Irwandi ran as an independent, prompting some GAM members to revert to that which they do so well; engaging in violence and thuggery to win elections.

Politically, Malik sought to have the elections delayed, twice, to push out Irwandi through legal challenges. While these failed, they did give the Aceh Party time to further organise. Drawing on a loyal and organised base of Aceh Party cadres, Zaini and Muzakir easily won the election for governor, despite claims of continued violence, intimidation, vote buying and other irregularities.

Hopes for peace

While there will no doubt be official challenges to aspects of the vote, the outcome is likely to stand. Interestingly, candidates who had previously been in favour of independence achieved over 90% of the vote.

As with other post-conflict, post-disaster societies, Aceh is still finding its way forward, playing democratic politics but in the hardest possible way.

A peaceful administrative transition, however, will help consolidate the local process of achieving political outcomes not through the barrel of a gun but through the ballot box.

The recent earthquake has reminded Acehnese that no matter what their concerns, preferences and differences, some things remain larger than politics.

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