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Aceh’s no win election

Aceh’s no win election
Published: Dec 10, 2011

Edward Aspinall

Irwandi is riding high on the popularity of his healthcare program
Edward Aspinall

Aceh is scheduled to hold elections for governor, and for most district head and mayor positions, on 16 February 2012. These elections, which should be a crowning achievement of Aceh’s peace process, are going ahead in a state of great legal uncertainty and political tension. There have been three Constitutional Court challenges so far. The local parliament has passed a local regulation on the elections, which the local Independent Election Commission (KIP) is ignoring. The commission has designed its own framework for the election, which critics say is shot through with legal contradictions and inconsistencies. Acehnese politicians have been flying back and forth to Jakarta to lobby the president and other senior officials to take sides in the dispute. And leaders of by far the biggest party in the province – and one which will play an important role in sustaining peace – have taken a stance that means they will not participate in the elections. If the elections go ahead as scheduled, they threaten to undermine one of the major achievements of the peace process so far: the peaceful integration of former rebels into Indonesia’s democratic political processes.

At the heart of the dispute is the question of whether independent candidates – candidates not nominated by any political party – should be able to stand in the elections. Irwandi Yusuf, who is the current governor and was once a leading member of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the former armed separatist movement in the province, is standing as an independent candidate, as he did when he was first elected in December 2006. Leaders of the Aceh Party (Partai Aceh), which was established as the political vehicle of former GAM members, however, insist that allowing independent candidates violates the Law for Governing Aceh. This law was passed by Indonesia’s national parliament in 2006 to implement the 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding that ended three decades of separatist conflict in the province. Irwandi’s supporters believe Partai Aceh simply wants to prevent the governor running, because they fear he will win and because the party’s leaders are locked in bitter personal and political disputes with him. Whatever their motivations, by taking their stand against independent candidates, the leaders of Partai Aceh have boxed themselves into a corner. The party, which still commands the loyalty of many, perhaps most, of Aceh’s former separatist rebels at this point looks as though it will abstain from the elections. This outcome will be deleterious for the long-term health of the peace process.

Background of the dispute

The dispute has a long and complex history that dates back to at least the signing of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding in August 2005. The key to the deal embodied in the Helsinki MoU was a trade: GAM gave up its arms and its goal of independence in exchange for expanded autonomy for Aceh, and for a chance to compete for political power locally. A key provision here was one that allowed local parties to compete in legislative elections in the province, whereas elsewhere in Indonesia registration requirements ensure that only parties with a broad national presence can compete in elections.

In 2005-06, however, it was also necessary to find a way to allow GAM candidates to stand in the 2006 election for governor and district head and mayoral positions, because those elections were due to take place before local political parties could be formed. There was more breathing space for establishment of local parties, which were expected to participate in the scheduled 2009 legislative elections.The Law for the Governing of Aceh thus included a provision (Article 67) that allowed independent candidates to stand. Irwandi use this provision of the law to win the governorship without being endorsed by any registered party, and GAM-supported independent candidates also won elections as district head or mayor in ten of Aceh’s regions. Crucially, however, Article 256 stated that the provision on independent candidates would apply for only the first election following the passage of the law. After that it was expected that candidates for executive government positions would have to be nominated by parties which had won a set proportion of the votes in the preceding legislative election, as elsewhere in Indonesia. Politicians in Jakarta’s parliament who passed the law were all members of political parties, and they did not want to open the door to independent candidates in any part of Indonesia.

In December 2010, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled that Article 256 was invalid. A few years earlier, the Court had decided that independent candidates should be allowed to stand in other local executive government head elections around the country, saying that restricting candidacy to people endorsed by parties violated articles of the constitution that guaranteed equality before the law and in rights of individuals. This earlier decision had made Aceh’s position anachronistic: were Article 256 to stay in place, Aceh would go from being the only province in Indonesia allowing independent candidates to being the only province to disallow them. Accordingly, the Court used the same reasoning to overrule it.

In the meantime, Partai Aceh had been formed, and performed very well in the 2009 legislative elections. With over 49 per cent of the vote, it became by far the dominant force in the provincial parliament. In February 2011 the party also endorsed Zaini Abdullah, a long-time exile in Sweden and one of a small group of senior leaders who have for years dominated the GAM leadership, as its candidate for governor. It appointed as his running mate Muzakkir Manaf, the chairperson of both the party and of the KPA (the organisation of former GAM combatants), and the one-time commander of the movement’s armed wing inside Aceh. The decision was highly controversial: at the crucial meeting, according to many participants, there was no room for debate and instead Muzakkir Manaf presented the decision to the attendees as a fait accompli. Many Partai Aceh and KPA leaders from Aceh’s regions in fact wanted to support Irwandi and they protested at their inability to influence the decision. A bitter split in the movement erupted and numerous regional leaders of the party were expelled from their positions.

The next step was fateful: Partai Aceh, and the provincial parliament which it dominated, refused to accept the Constitutional Court decision. Partai Aceh leaders said that the Court had failed to consult Aceh’s legislature before making its ruling, contravening Article 269 (3) of the Law for the Governing of Aceh which requires consultation when there are ‘plans to change this law’. The tenor of their rhetoric quickly escalated, with party leaders depicting the decision as a direct violation of not only the law but also of the spirit of the peace agreement and as the beginning of a wider effort to strip Aceh of its promised self-government. Apparently refusing to accept that Constitutional Court rulings are final, some even talked of appealing against the decision. In June 2011, the provincial parliament passed a new election regulation once more disallowing independent candidates, in direct contravention of the Court ruling. Governor Irwandi refused to assent to this regulation, the Minister of Internal Affairs said it was invalid and Aceh’s electoral commission ignored it, allowing independents to register their candidacy. In November, the Constitutional Court reconfirmed its earlier decision and stated once again that independent candidates may run. Partai Aceh has retaliated by saying that it will withdraw from the election.

The legal dispute is of course much more complex than this brief gloss suggests: Indonesia’s electoral governance regulations are complicated, with specific laws and regulations governing Aceh overlaid by laws and regulations that operate at the national level. There are various electoral management bodies, chief among them KIP in Aceh and, in Jakarta, the General Elections Commission (KPU). Suffice it to say that with regard to the forthcoming Aceh election the status and authority of virtually every regulation is now under dispute, as is the authority and legal interpretations made by virtually every electoral management body. But all of the disputes boil down to one key issue: should independent candidates be allowed to stand or not?

On this central point, what was essentially an internal conflict between former GAM supporters had escalated into a full-blown political and legal crisis. Partai Aceh spokespeople claim their position is a defence of the principles of self-government embodied in the Helsinki MoU, and of the Law for the Governing of Jakarta itself. Irwandi’s supporters, and most commentators, accuse them of being motivated primarily by their desire to prevent Irwandi Yusuf contesting the election. People in the Irwandi camp say allowing independent candidates is in line with the principle of broad political participation central to the Helsinki MoU (they point to the article 1.2.2 which says that ‘the people of Aceh will have the right to nominate candidates for the positions of all elected officials in Aceh’) and recall that back in 2006 GAM leaders had boasted that Aceh had become a pioneer in Indonesian democratisation by virtue of being the first province to allow independent candidates.

The Irwandi juggernaut

Central to the dispute is Irwandi Yusuf himself. A strong-willed and, some would say, abrasive character he had already been involved in a dispute with the old guard in GAM when he ran in 2006 against Hasbi Abdullah (Zaini’s brother). Since that time he has developed a reputation for being a governor who likes to get his hands dirty: his speciality is making tours to the regions, driving his own Rubicon jeep and making snap inspections of remote government offices, muddy development projects or secret illegal logging sites, berating contractors and officials who are failing to deliver services or complete their projects on time. He also spends a lot of time in the company of military and police officials, and photos of him being recognised as a member of the military's 'Raiders' unit dressed in a military uniform earlier this year circulate widely on the internet.

But he has won considerable support by way of a range of infrastructure, welfare and development projects, most of them funded by the Special Autonomy funds provided to Aceh as a direct result of the peace deal. A lot of money has been poured into scholarship and village development schemes, as well as road-building and the development of other basic infrastructure. His signature program, however, has been in the area of health care where a new health scheme called the Aceh Health Guarantee (JKA) is wildly popular. Using up a large chunk of the special autonomy funds, this scheme provides free health care to all of Aceh’s residents, even paying for charter flights to hospitals in Jakarta for critical patients. Throughout Aceh people talk with wonder about how they have received free health services for the first time, and Irwandi has done all that he can to associate himself with the program, even including his own photo on the health scheme cards that are issued.

Most opinion polls have been conducted indicate that Irwandi is by far the most popular candidate, with his deputy governor, Muhammad Nazar, who is running with the support of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Partai Demokrat, a distant second. However, Irwandi is also a very tough politician, who understands the rules of the game of Indonesian politics and has made links with key political and economic forces in Jakarta. In a society in which the flow of patronage often determines political loyalties, he has obstructed the flow of funds to political rivals (for example, by refusing to sign off on the ‘aspiration fund’ projects supported by members of the Aceh parliament who have opposed him). He also has deftly used government funds to build his own political base. When the GAM family split following the forced nomination of Zaini early this year, many of the regional Partai Aceh leaders and KPA ‘commanders’ who supported Irwandi were the former rebels who have been most successful in transforming themselves into businessmen and contractors, building up their personal wealth and political influence by winning projects from the Aceh government. In virtually every district of Aceh, therefore, the former combatants are split between those who support Irwandi and those who remain loyal to Partai Aceh, but these disputes almost invariably overlay a myriad of local enmities about who gets access to economic resources.

The strength of mainstream Partai Aceh enmity towards Irwandi runs deep. In the very highest echelons of the movement, there is a sense of deep personal affront that a man who used to be a part of the movement is now defying their orders. In the war years, GAM leaders always ran the rebellion in an autocratic manner, they cultivated a cult of personality around their founder (now deceased), Hasan Tiro, and they were used to getting their own way. Most of them have also failed to adapt to Aceh’s new situation. Men like Malik Mahmud and Zaini Abdullah, who have spent most of their adult lives outside of Indonesia have been out-manoeuvred by Irwandi on almost every point, and their attempts to dictate Aceh’s political future often seem inept and petulant. As one local election official in North Aceh put it: ‘They might understand Europe, and they might understand the old history of Aceh as they recall it, but they don’t understand Aceh today. They especially don’t understand how deeply Indonesia has penetrated into Aceh, how much Indonesian ways have affected the political behaviour of the Acehnese, the legal system operating in Aceh, and how Aceh works.’ At the lower levels of the movement, there is a culture of absolute obedience to the ‘commands’ of the leaders (it was for this reason that Muzakkir Manaf was chosen as Zaini’s running mate: the former military commander Muzakkir commands considerable personal loyalty among ordinary former fighters), and many ordinary Partai Aceh now view Irwandi as someone who is violating the Helsinki MoU and has abandoned the fraternity of their movement.

A movement that is floundering

Most Acehnese civil society activists and outside observers are highly critical of the part that Partai Aceh has played in the current crisis. They accuse the leadership of being autocratic and self-interested and of lacking in vision. There is much that is accurate about these criticisms. But a deeper malaise is also at work: many of the former rebels are simply not adjusting well to peace. The dreams they used to nurture of a prosperous and glorious Aceh are turning to dust in their hands, and they feel unable to affect the course of events.

The sad fact is that most people in the movement are unequipped to deal with their new circumstances. Aceh’s district parliaments, for example, are full of former guerrillas who lack higher education or experience of modern administration who are baffled and alienated by the complex budgetary negotiations and political dealings in which they find themselves immersed. Where once they committed themselves to the struggle for Free Aceh, now they exhaust themselves wheeling and dealing to try to get project funding for a little road project in their home village, or to get some money for some cows or goats for an animal husbandry scheme they hope to sponsor. Corrupt bureaucrats run rings around them; efficient ones explain why their plans cannot work, or why the funding is not available.

To be sure, many, perhaps most, of the Partai Aceh and other former GAM leaders who find themselves in positions of authority have tried to use their new influence to benefit themselves. There are plenty of Partai Aceh parliamentarians in the province and districts who have struck deals with contractors or other businesspeople, or diverted funds for their own purposes. Everywhere you go in Aceh, local people can point out the newly built or renovated houses owned by local GAM grandees, or the luxurious off-road vehicles they drive. Combatants-cum-contractors squeeze project funding from local bureaucrats and make deals with them. Some of the GAM district heads and mayors elected in 2006 have recorded achievements, but many have been judged failures by their communities, and some – such as Ilyas Hamid, the district head of North Aceh – have been exposed for involvement in humiliating corruption scandals.

As a result, at the grassroots of the movement there are hundreds or even thousands of people – mostly village and small town men – who see their former leaders fighting among themselves, with a few getting of them getting rich, while they themselves are still mired in poverty. Conversations with former combatants in Aceh almost always turns quickly to two things: money and the loss of the old spirit of unity. ‘Why is it’, asked one Partai Aceh member of the local legislature in Bireuen, ‘that we used to be united when we were in the jungle, when we had a holy goal. Now, when we can sit pleasantly in the coffee shops, when we have cars when we used to have nothing, when we have good houses, we cannot do anything?’ His voice raised to a shout, and he waved his fist. And why is it, say others, that most former combatants are still so poor. What happened to the promise of economic assistance and prosperity that – in their views – was central to the Helsinki agreement?

This diffuse and bitter sense of disorientation is the background to much of the intensity and intransigence that surrounds the debate on the election. Many Partai Aceh people speak bitterly of Irwandi as being a traitor, a label that often earned people summary execution in the years of the armed struggle. Most point darkly at plots by ‘Jakarta’ (they lack the sophistication to differentiate between the Constitutional Court and other political actors in the central government) to strip the Law for the Governing of Aceh, and the Helsinki MoU of all meaning. First comes the independent candidate provision, then the rules on oil and gas revenue sharing, on the wali nanggroe, and every other aspect of Aceh’s ‘specialness’: all will be whittled away one by one, or so they fear. Many now have started to compare the Helsinki MoU with the Ikrar Lamteh agreement of 1957, which helped to bring peace after the Darul Islam rebellion in Aceh, but whereafter, GAM people say, Jakarta betrayed all its promises to provide Aceh with autonomy, necessitating their later rebellion. Almost everybody makes dire predictions of future violence, or speaks of their willingness to take up arms once again if requested to by their leaders, although such an outcome is not in the offing.

To be sure, these are the true believers, the former combatants who cling to Partai Aceh. The big picture is one of a movement that is disintegrating. Many, perhaps most, former guerrillas are alienated and disillusioned by what has become of their movement, and have drifted away into political apathy and into their own private concerns. A few have gravitated to the Irwandi camp, motivated as often by the financial rewards this offers than by Irwandi’s vision for Aceh’s development. But a core group hold on to their loyalty to the movement’s old leaders and its symbols, chief among which is now the Partai Aceh itself, as an anchoring point amidst the disappointment they feel.

A win for Jakarta?

The anger in Partai Aceh is only part of the picture. Partai Aceh leaders still insist that they will not revert to violence, and call on their followers to restrain themselves. Peace, they say, is non-negotiable. One of the great ironies of the situation is that the different camps in the former separatist movement are now looking – and appealing – to Jakarta to solve their problems. Irwandi’s supporters have found their defender in the Constitutional Court. Partai Aceh leaders met with president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in late September and claim that he promised to postpone the election. They now say they are waiting for him to fulfil his promise, and to initiate a new compromise solution that would allow them to run in the election and which would replace Irwandi with an acting governor in the meantime (thus depriving Irwandi of government funds with which to build his campaign). Some Partai Aceh hint they might accept a formula that allows Irwandi to run if the election is postponed. It seems likely in their hope for a postponement, as in so much else, they will be humiliated.

In one sense, from the perspective of the Jakarta government and perhaps even from a perspective of long-term peace-building, the controversy has a positive aspect: it is deepening the divisions among the former separatists and thus lessening the chance of a return of conflict. But this process of splintering and diminishment was taking place anyway, as a natural consequence of the movement’s integration into the official political system. The danger with the forthcoming election is that this process of gradual integration and co-optation will be replaced by sudden exclusion. An election will take place in which the political organisation that represents the largest chunk of former guerrillas, and which won almost half of the popular vote in Aceh two years ago, will field no candidates. To be sure, Partai Aceh leaders have only themselves to blame for this outcome. But many of their followers will blame Jakarta.

Edward Aspinall (edward.aspinall@anu.edu.au) is a researcher based at the Australian National University, and a coordinating editor of Inside Indonesia.
Inside Indonesia 106: Oct-Dec 2011

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