Dec 07, 2023 Last Updated 1:42 AM, Dec 7, 2023

Aceh elections

Published: Apr 14, 2007

Independent candidates with GAM backgrounds dominate elections for governor and district heads.

Kym Holthouse

Driving through Aceh on 11 December last year, it was clear that it was no ordinary day. Many businesses and offices were closed for the official public holiday as Acehnese people made their way to the polling booths to elect their provincial and district heads (bupati) for the first time ever. The voter turnout of 85 per cent — a record high for a local Indonesian election — removed any doubt about whether these elections mattered to the Acehnese.

It was not only the quantity, but also the manner of participation that impressed. Throughout the lead up to the election you could see and hear the words ‘Peaceful Elections’. Candidates, supporters, officials and voters seemed determined to ensure the reality lived up to the slogan. Observing voting and counting in Banda Aceh, Pidie and Aceh Besar, I sensed the tension in the air was the normal excitement of any genuine electoral contest.

These elections were inconceivable before the December 2004 tsunami. The tsunami created renewed impetus for efforts to end the 29-year conflict between GAM (Free Aceh Movement) and Indonesian government forces, leading to the signing of the Helsinki MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) in August 2005. Direct elections for governor and district heads were part of the MoU to assist GAM’s transition from armed struggle to political participation.

Despite divisions among GAM’s senior leadership over which gubernatorial candidate to support, independent candidates with GAM backgrounds dominated both provincial and district races. Running as independents and against the wishes of GAM’s exiled leadership in Sweden, former GAM military strategist and negotiator Irwandi Yusuf paired with former student activist and founder of pro-referendum group SIRA, Muhammad Nazar to win the governor’s office by a landslide. Meanwhile, Humam Hamid and Hasbi Abdullah, nominated by PPP (United Development Party) and supported, though not officially endorsed, by GAM’s exiled leadership, finished a distant second. Independent candidates backed by GAM’s local leadership also won six of the 14 district races they contested.

Why independent candidates?

Aceh’s history of armed rebellion against Indonesian rule suggested candidates with GAM credentials would poll well. But many analysts felt that the Humam/Hasbi ticket would be seen as a popular compromise, combining a ‘mild’ GAM flavour with a national party. Most pundits had also wrongly predicted a second round, with no candidate pair likely to reach the 25 per cent threshold to secure first round victory.

In my informal sampling of Acehnese reactions to Irwandi’s runaway win, social class was a remarkably reliable guide to a person’s level of surprise. The university educated elite usually admitted to being shocked, but people such as the security guards and drivers at my office were far less surprised.

Running as independents, former GAM figures denied themselves the financial resources available to candidates backed by parties. This fact was reflected in the contrast between the slick and omnipresent campaign materials of Humam/Hasbi, and the near invisibility of Irwandi/Nazar. Homemade banners produced by some of Irwandi/Nazar’s supporters epitomised their ‘budget’ campaign. One of these banners that I saw, hanging from a bridge and painted on a bed sheet, carried the slogan, ‘Through the independent path, toward formation of a new Aceh’.

Also emphasising the ‘independent path’ was a text message circulating before the election. Written in Acehnese, it read, ‘If people do not elect Irwandi it will signal to Jakarta that it need not bother allowing local political parties in Aceh, because it will be clear that the Acehnese people are satisfied with national parties …’

These sentiments partly explain the success of independent candidates. Members of national political parties who have governed in Aceh have been widely regarded as unresponsive to the population’s needs. As if to visually emphasise this point, Irwandi/Nazar (and all candidates with GAM bases in the district elections) wore traditional Acehnese dress at campaign events and in photographs on ballot papers.

GAM’s former command structure also proved highly efficient for low-cost campaigning, more than offsetting the independents’ relative financial weakness. With much of their campaigning conducted out of the public eye, it is not surprising that Irwandi/Nazar’s electoral appeal was grossly underestimated by pre-election surveys and most observers.

That Irwandi/Nazar benefited from the GAM field command structure can be seen in a high correlation between the districts where the GAM presence had been strong, and the districts where they polled well. But as I observed vote counting at two ‘back to back’ polling stations in Pidie, it became clear that although effective, these channels could not guarantee a majority of votes in an area, even within one village.

At the first polling booth, with around 80 per cent of the vote counted, Irwandi/Nazar had around three quarters of the vote. Given that the two polling booths were located in the same village (no more than 50 metres apart), I naturally expected to find a similar result at the second booth. But the result there was almost the exact opposite: Humam/Hasbi leading by a similarly massive margin. This polarisation within one village suggests a tendency for communities, sometimes below the village level, to vote as blocks, with multiple actors seeking to influence that ‘block’ vote.

Islam and women’s participation

In spite of the oft-cited role of Islam in Acehnese identity and culture, the election results showed that Acehnese voters followed the general trend of Indonesian voters since 1999, and were not overly attracted to Islamic political parties.

Nevertheless, Islamic symbols were prominent throughout, and were viewed as a source of political legitimacy for both candidates and the election process as a whole. Most candidates included images of Banda Aceh’s Grand Mosque on their campaign banners, and many promised to develop Aceh based on a strengthened syariah law. Even the Independent Election Commission (KIP) featured the image of the mosque rather than the governor’s office on its website.

Candidates were required to pass a test proving their fluency in reading (mengaji) the Qur’an in Arabic. The tests were open to the public, and for the gubernatorial candidates, even broadcast on the radio. Controversy erupted where several candidates who failed the test accused the assessors of partiality, or even incompetence. However, an IFES survey showed that 80 per cent of people agreed with the test, feeling that it was ‘mandatory’ and important for ‘implementation of Islamic law’.

Whilst aware of Islam’s special place in Aceh, Irwandi and Nazar have hinted that they may challenge the direction of syariah law. In a candidate debate during the campaign period, a female academic asked about women in politics and syariah being used to oppress women. Irwandi cited the Law on Governance for Aceh requiring that women make up 30 per cent of founding members and management of local political parties. ‘So hopefully women won’t have problems participating in politics any more. […] As for [syariah], where anyone is acting as law enforcers without authority, we will fix that and clarify the situation.’ Nazar added, ‘Let’s not busy ourselves caning chicken thieves, while looters of public money escape scot free.’

At the top level there were only two women candidates — one each for governor and deputy governor. Both were disqualified for not passing the Qur’an reading test. The candidate for governor, Mediati Hafni Hanum, has protested the result of the test. She is tertiary educated, has completed the haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and is currently a member of the Regional Representative Council (DPD). The European Union Electoral Observation Mission also noted that at district level, only five out of 258 candidates were women. On the positive side, women’s participation as voters was high.

The future

Independent candidates were only an interim step in 2006, until the laws allowing local parties could be passed. Irwandi will also no doubt need the support of a formal party structure, particularly if he intends to roll back syariah law. It remains to be seen whether GAM will remain politically coherent during this process, or fracture into multiple parties. Either way, Irwandi will lack allies in a DPRD (Regional Peoples’ Representative Council) comprising only members of national political parties, at least until the DPRD elections in 2009.

GAM’s evolution into electoral politics will depend greatly on whether all actors can respect the collective voice of the Acehnese people. Any political party that GAM spawns could end up controlling the governor’s office, many of the district heads’ offices, and the DPRD. This may not be an attractive proposition to national, and particularly nationalist, political parties.

However, GAM’s electoral success need not threaten national interests. The more GAM succeeds in its electoral ambitions, the more Acehnese expectations will shift from central government, and fall squarely on former GAM figures to deliver on their promises.

It is too early to assess whether Aceh’s new leaders and Jakarta will be able to work together effectively. The tendency on both sides to focus on symbols — especially flags and the GAM name — carries risks. However, the restrained tones of early statements from Irwandi, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla give reason for hope. After enduring 29 years of conflict and the devastation of the tsunami, the Acehnese people deserve to have their optimism rewarded.

Kym Holthouse ( ) was the Research and Reporting Officer for the Aceh Local Elections Support Project, UN Development Program.

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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