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Elections: Consolidating peace

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Edward Aspinall tells the story of the December 2006 elections in Aceh, describing how the subject of local elections had almost wrecked the Helsinki talks, and how the GAM leadership was able to overcome divisions and secure a victory at the polls.

In December 2004, Irwandi Yusuf, a key member of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), escaped prison when the tsunami destroyed his jail. Two years later, he was elected governor of Aceh. Irwani's extraordinary story is characteristic of the December 2006 elections in Aceh, which Aspinall sees as a comparably remarkable outcome of the recent peace process in the province. Local elections were among the most contentious elements of the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding that ended the war, almost wrecking the Helsinki talks. And as elections approached, the GAM leadership became increasingly divided. But it was able to secure victory by portraying itself as a genuine force for change, and through its well-developed organisation and its insurgent legacy.

Elections: Consolidating peace

One of the most remarkable outcomes of the peace process in Aceh came with the 11 December 2006 elections. Against most predictions, the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) strategist and propagandist Irwandi Yusuf was elected as Aceh's governor. He gained 38 per cent of the vote, far ahead of his nearest rival who won 17 per cent. On the same day, candidates nominated by GAM were also elected as mayors and district heads(bupati) in six out of the 19 municipalities and districts where elections were held. By early 2008, following run-offs and delayed elections, GAM-affiliated candidates had won a total of nine such district races, and look set to win one more.

Just two years earlier Irwandi had been in prison, but he escaped and made his way overseas when the tsunami of 26 December 2004 destroyed his jail, killing many inmates. His running mate, Muhammad Nazar, a former pro-independence student leader, remained in jail in Java throughout the Helsinki peace talks that led to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in August 2005. The stories of many of the newly elected bupati and mayors contain comparably dramatic turnarounds of political fortunes. In attempting to explain these events, this article explains the background and implementation of the elections, analyses their significance for the wider peace process and points to reasons for the success of GAM-affiliated candidates.

Elections and parties in the peace process

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.

The candidates: Divisions in GAM

Several sets of candidates in the elections were from Aceh's existing political establishment. Among the most important were former acting governor, Azwar Abubakar, nominated by the National Mandate Party (PAN), and his running mate Nasir Djamil, nominated by the Justice and Welfare Party (PKS), who formed an Islamically-oriented ticket. Malik Raden, a prominent politician from the Golkar party – the former ruling party under the Suharto regime – was considered to have a chance because he had the backing of his party's formidable electoral machinery.

Another favoured candidate was Ahmad Humam Hamid, a prominent and respected local academic who had been active in various civil society and political activities over the preceding decade. He secured the endorsement of the Unity Development Party (PPP), an established Islamic party. Unlike most other mainstream candidates, he was acutely aware of the likely electoral appeal of GAM and tried hard to secure a running mate with a GAM background. He settled upon Hasbi Abdullah, an academic who had served terms of imprisonment despite not being a GAM leader himself. Hasbi was backed by most of the older generation of GAM leaders, including his brother Zaini Abdullah (GAM's 'foreign minister'), the GAM 'prime minister' Malik Mahmud, and other individuals who had joined the movement in the 1970s and formed its 'blue blood' group. They backed Hasbi both for personal reasons and because they feared that GAM candidates were unprepared to hold power in their own right, whereas a coalition with a 'national' politician would better preserve the peace process. Their critics in GAM claimed this argument was mere rationalisation.

During the conflict years, GAM had been remarkably unified and disciplined, unlike many comparable insurgencies. The movement's military commanders in the field were loyal to the leaders exiled in Sweden and deferred to them on political matters. Now, the older group's endorsement of Hasbi caused a dramatic breakdown of this unity. Many of GAM's former field commanders, younger men who were now organised in the Aceh Transitional Committee (KPA), felt that they were being railroaded into supporting Hasbi-Humam. Their opposition reflected frustrations over issues that had been building up since the beginning of the peace process and resentment over what they saw as autocratic behaviour by the older leaders. They also viewed as a betrayal the idea that GAM should enter a coalition with a candidate supported by a national party.

The divisions came to a head immediately after a GAM meeting to select a gubernatorial candidate in late May. In an open vote, Hasbi came a close second – but as a candidate for governor, not deputy. The winning candidate, Nashruddin Abubakar, said he was unwilling to stand and preferred to take a back seat, advisory role. GAM's Government Council, dominated by the older leaders, declared that the movement would not officially endorse any candidate, but that GAM members were free to stand in the election as individuals. This freed them to back the Humam-Hasbi ticket, and they did so. But the decision also opened the way for Irwandi Yusuf to stand for election as an independent candidate. Irwandi won the backing of most of the KPA district commanders and therefore of the majority of GAM's structure down to the village level. His running mate, Muhammad Nazar, was known as a fearless government critic. Untainted by cooperation with 'national' political forces, Irwandi-Nazar were able to present themselves as heirs to GAM's tradition of struggle and as the most likely to stand up to the national government in pushing for full implementation of the MoU.

At the local level, there were some bitter splits in the ranks of former GAM members in the lead-up to the elections. These even spilled over into violence in some places (for example, a bus carrying Humam Hamid was attacked during campaigning in Bireuen). Mostly, however, the campaigning proceeded peacefully.

Explaining GAM's victory

What explains the victory of Irwandi-Nazar and of district-level candidates affiliated to GAM? Several factors were important. First was widespread voter disillusionment with the mainstream political parties and their candidates, into which GAM candidates could tap to present themselves as agents of real change. The disillusionment had accumulated over preceding years: while local politicians had been virtually powerless to influence the course of the war, Aceh's population had become deeply mired in the poverty caused by the conflict and the province had earned a reputation as one of the most corrupt in Indonesia. GAM candidates also made promises of accelerated economic development, improved infrastructure, more jobs and better government services central to their campaign messages. Some of their promises lacked credibility to more sophisticated urban audiences: according to two witnesses interviewed by the author, the GAM candidate for bupati in North Aceh, Ilyas Hamid, publicly stated at one campaign event that his government would finance health and education services for the local population by printing money. But these promises resonated powerfully in poor rural communities where people felt neglected by the government and where local GAM commanders were often admired for their honesty and for having led austere lifestyles during the guerrilla years.

A second factor was the movement's superior organisation. During the conflict years, GAM had developed the highly effective political-military organisation it needed to run an insurgency. In many rural districts GAM's network was virtually indistinguishable from the familial and social networks that infused rural life, with entire villages providing either passive or active support to the guerrillas. During the elections, GAM-affiliated candidates relied on this network to mobilise voters. In many places, this was done very systematically, with members of 'success teams' campaigning door-to-door. GAM candidates' teams often had far less money than rival teams, which often distributed cash, foodstuff or other necessities to voters; yet such actions helped to reinforce GAM's message that their opponents were corrupt. Elsewhere, it was more a matter of former GAM commanders making it known publicly to people in 'their' communities where their loyalties lay, and this was enough for many GAM base areas to vote en bloc . Tellingly, it was the gubernatorial candidates who had the backing of the major part of GAM's former military wing in the KPA who were victorious on election day.

Importantly, too, this organisation worked hardest and best in the rural areas where most of the population lived. Hence, in East Aceh, members of the ‘success team’ of the former guerrilla leader Muslim Hasballah began by systematically assessing likely support in individual villages and appointing campaign organisers for each village. They hardly bothered to campaign in the towns and ‘along the main roads.’ Muslim did not carry the vote in the towns or in villages near urban centres, but he won convincingly in rural areas and the interior. Likewise, in West Aceh, the successful GAM-affiliated candidate for bupati told the author that he had emphasised during his campaign that, “if I am elected I will emphasise development of the villages first, from the grassroots first. This is because the roots of rebellion in the past were always in the villages. In the interior, they are all GAM, in the towns, they were public servants.”

Finally, GAM-affiliated candidates did well because they were able to present a message which melded support for the peace process with stress on continuity with their past struggle. GAM candidates knew that their promise to abandon the independence goal was central to the Helsinki peace deal, and they were careful not to violate this pledge during the election campaign. Indeed, they presented the Helsinki MoU as the fruit of GAM’s struggle and emphasised that GAM was best placed to safeguard it. But they also did not shy away from evoking memories of their old struggle. In election campaign rallies witnessed by the author (in Bireuen in June 2007 and South Aceh in November 2007), local heroes of the guerrilla campaign as well as GAM symbols and songs featured prominently.

Patterns of voter support

The victory of GAM-affiliated candidates seemingly resolves the question of whether or to what extent the movement had been a popular insurgency. During the conflict years, analysts had debated to what extent GAM had secured its goals by intimidation and coercion of the rural population. While violence of course did form part of GAM’s repertoire of behaviour (and there were even some scattered reports of GAM intimidation of voters in 2006), it is very unlikely that, had the movement relied primarily on coercion in the past, its leaders would have won so handsomely in the polls.

The geographic breadth of the support was also striking. Irwandi-Nazar carried the vote in 15 out of the province’s 21 districts. GAM-affiliated candidates, not surprisingly, did best in areas where the movement had been strongest during the insurgency: east coast districts that had been GAM base areas since the 1970s were won resoundingly by GAM candidates (Bireuen and North Aceh by Irwandi-Nazar and Pidie by Humam-Hasbi). Irwandi-Nazar also won convincingly in areas on the west coast that had been conflict hot spots since the late 1990s, notably Aceh Jaya and South Aceh.

GAM’s votes were generally much lower in urban areas where the insurgency had been weak. They also were less successful in the less-developed, more sparsely populated and remote districts of the interior and the south-west, where populations were also more ethnically heterogeneous than in the predominantly ethnically Acehnese GAM strongholds. Politics in these more remote areas also tends to resemble those in other backwoods parts of Indonesia, with locally-powerful bureaucrats, business people and other ‘strongmen’ retaining considerable political influence.

This phenomenon partly accounts for one striking but rarely discussed aspect of the election results: the discrepancy between the gubernatorial and district-level votes. In 8 of the 17 districts where Irwandi-Nazar or Humam-Hasbi won the gubernatorial vote, non-GAM candidates were elected as bupati or mayor. For example, in Aceh Besar, the district surrounding Banda Aceh, Irwandi-Nazar came first with 30 per cent of the vote in the gubernatorial poll, but the victor in the bupati race was Bukhari Daud, a respected academic nominated by PAN with 26 per cent. In other words, many voters who backed GAM-aligned candidates for governor voted for GAM’s rivals at the district level.

This does not necessarily mean that the Irwandi-Nazar campaign was better organised than campaigns for the district-level GAM candidates; on the contrary, often the campaigns were run by the same people and were indistinguishable. Instead, the discrepancy illustrates the relevance of the old axiom, ‘all politics are local.’ When it came to choosing district heads, voters had a choice between candidates who were often well-known and influential locally. Voters often knew personally bupati and mayoral candidates, or were linked to them by patronage ties. Sub-districts were often carried by whoever was the ‘hometown candidate.’ In contrast, when voters cast votes for the governor of the province, they were thinking more about Aceh’s wider interests, identity and relations with Jakarta. At this Aceh-wide level, GAM’s appeal was more powerful.

Looking forward

The elections did not mark the end of the peace process. Risks and unfinished agenda items still remain. There is potential for future conflict between Aceh’s new leaders and the national government on issues ranging from how to divide natural gas revenues to how to deal with the legacy of past human rights abuses. The divisions within GAM which opened during the campaign have already caused local-level violence and could spiral if not managed carefully, especially when exacerbated by conflicts over the division of the economic spoils provided by government.

The elections, however, did help to consolidate the peace process in several important ways. They demonstrated to Aceh’s population that dramatic political change was possible. They also helped former members of GAM to integrate into Indonesia’s governing structures, and begin to abandon their previous posture of opposing them from the outside. Elections also encouraged GAM leaders to turn their attention toward the mundane and technical issues of economic development that concerned voters, and away from the more elemental issues of identity and ethnic pride that had motivated GAM in the past. Even the divisions which opened up within the movement during the elections were arguably a healthy sign of the movement’s transition toward ‘normal’ democratic politics.