The elections represented a crucial step in the peace process. One of the most contentious parts of the MoU was the section on political participation. This mandated that, 'free and fair local elections will be organised under the new Law on the Governing of Aceh to elect the head of the Aceh administration and other elected officials in April 2006' (section 1.2.3). Section 1.2.2 explained that, 'Upon the signature of this MoU, the people of Aceh will have the right to nominate candidates for the positions of all elected officials to contest the elections in Aceh in April 2006 and thereafter.' In addition, section 1.2.1 required that the government, 'create, within one year or at the latest 18 months from the signing of this MoU, the political and legal conditions for the establishment of local political parties in Aceh in consultation with Parliament.'
These provisions may seem uncontroversial, yet they almost caused the collapse of the Helsinki talks. To understand why, it is necessary to recall the conditions that accompanied Indonesia's transition to democracy after President Suharto's downfall in 1998. Amidst violence and political turmoil in many regions, national political leaders feared that democratisation would unleash centrifugal forces that would tear the country apart. To counter this, they built a number of supposed safeguards into the new democratic political architecture, including measures specifically designed to prevent localist forces from gaining a foothold in formal politics. Thus, according to Indonesia's national political party law, only parties with a demonstrable presence in half the districts in half the provinces of the country can register with the government. According to the national elections law, to compete in elections they must show a presence in two thirds of the districts in two thirds of the provinces. In the law, which allows for direct elections of local government heads, it is not 'the people' (as in section 1.2.2. of the MoU) who nominate candidates for such positions, but the national political parties (or coalitions of parties) that have won a minimum percentage of the vote or seats in the most recent legislative election in the region concerned.
For GAM negotiators in Helsinki, it was crucial to exempt Aceh from these Indonesia-wide rules. In exchange for giving up their arms and their goal of independence, GAM leaders wanted to be able to transform their organisation into a peaceful, democratic movement and compete for power in Aceh. If only national parties and their nominees were allowed to run for office, acceding to a peace deal would have meant GAM was effectively liquidating itself as a political movement.
On the other hand, government negotiators in Helsinki (and, even more so, politicians back in Jakarta) were very reluctant to concede on these issues, fearing that allowing an exception to the national rules would lead to their unravelling. An even greater fear was that a victorious GAM party or GAM-nominated candidates would weaken ties with the rest of the country or even declare independence.
In Jakarta, national political party leaders kept up a constant barrage of public commentary rejecting compromise. GAM was equally insistent that local parties and independent candidates were democratic rights of the people of Aceh. At the last moment, when it looked like the talks would collapse and the GAM delegates were packing their bags, government negotiators 'blinked' (in the words of one GAM negotiator) and offered 'Aceh-based political parties using national criteria,' setting in train the compromise embodied in section 1.2 of the MoU.
But this was not the end of the road. During the negotiations between Acehnese actors and the national government and parliament leading to the formulation of the Law for the Governing of Aceh (LoGA) in 2006, there were again attempts to water down these provisions. Eventually, it was agreed that local parties would be allowed to compete in the legislative elections, starting from 2009. The LoGA stresses that these parties cannot violate Indonesia's constitution or its founding 'national philosophy' of Pancasila , which stresses the importance of national unity. For the first direct elections of local government heads (which eventually had to be postponed from May to December 2006, giving GAM more time to prepare for them), independent candidates would be allowed provided they could prove they were supported by three per cent of the population in the province (governor elections) or district/municipality (bupati and mayor elections). In subsequent elections only candidates nominated by parties would compete.