May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Strange bedfellows

Strange bedfellows

An unlikely alliance between former rebels and a former New Order tormentor will test the limits of Partai Aceh loyalty

Shane J. Barter

Healthcare, Prabowo Style Elisabeth Pisani

The highly anticipated 2014 Indonesian national elections are fast approaching. For years, the big question has been what happens after the sitting president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), finishes his second and final term. SBY utterly failed to groom a successor within Partai Demokrat (PD), evident with his choice of the capable but colourless Boediono as his 2009 running mate. While Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo of the PDIP (Democratic Struggle Party) provides some excitement, the list of plausible candidates seems uninspiring. For many, the greatest fear is the candidature of Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s former son-in-law and one-time Kopassus (Special Forces) Commander widely thought to be responsible for scores of abuses against student protestors, ethnic Chinese, East Timorese, and Acehnese.

In the lead-up to the 2014 elections, Prabowo has formed a shocking alliance with Aceh’s former rebels. Thus far, Partai Aceh (PA) has dominated the province’s electoral landscape, winning district and provincial executive posts and securing majorities in district and provincial legislatures. In national contests, PA helped SBY and his party deepen their support in Aceh. Now, the former rebels are asking Acehnese voters to do the unthinkable: vote for a New Order stalwart and symbol of oppression. This represents an acid test of PA loyalty, and may propel changes in Acehnese politics.

A changing landscape

With the field of potential presidential candidates emerging, regional elites across Indonesia are already jockeying for allies, promising to deliver votes in exchange for access and promotion. One of the most interesting dynamics is unfolding in Aceh, the site of the 2004 tsunami and a long-standing secessionist conflict that was resolved in 2005, due in part to SBY’s efforts. The rebels laid down their weapons with the promise of forming a political party and competing in elections. Local parties are expressly forbidden in Indonesia for fear that they will serve narrow, parochial interests. An exception was made for Aceh, where the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels created Partai Aceh. The province has thus become a test case for sub-national parties in Indonesia. Of course, there were fears that PA would only care about local politics and serve ethnic Acehnese interests. Far from refusing to participate in national politics, PA has become deeply involved, but in unexpected ways.

While largely successful, Indonesia’s experiment with local parties in Aceh has hardly been perfect. Organised through the Aceh Transitional Committee  (KPA), the former rebels have come to dominate the local economy, with shady construction contracts fuelling the PA political machine. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has dubbed the KPA ‘the greatest scourge of post-conflict Aceh’, running mafia-like protection rackets and executing political rivals. Aceh has seen some political violence as PA intimidated local and national parties in the 2009 elections and factions within PA have become involved in turf wars. As expected, PA also uses exclusive ethnic cues, failing to reach out to Aceh’s numerous minorities.

PA has seen a quick turnover in leadership, with liberal elements muscled out by hardliners. While figures such as Irwandi Yusuf and Nurdin Rahman won early elections, former GAM guerilla commanders and elites close to the late Hasan di Tiro dashed their reelection bids. In 2012, a bitter conflict led to Zaini Abdullah, GAM’s former ‘Foreign Minister’ being elected Governor of Aceh. He was joined in the former head of GAM’s armed forces, Muzakkir Manaf, serving as his second-in-command. Their victory signaled a turn towards greater corruption, an increased use of ethnic cues, and greater endorsement for Aceh’s local syaria laws.

Since the 2006 elections for governor, the former rebels have dominated Aceh’s political landscape, a testament to their enduring popularity. This said, in the 2009 elections, PA support was concentrated in the north of the province, where they won district and provincial elections in landslide numbers. On the west coast and around the provincial capital support for GAM was less strong, ethnic minority districts voters supported national parties such as Golkar. Generally though, it can be said that PA dominates Aceh’s politics and remains genuinely popular, a legacy of GAM resistance to abusive Indonesian forces and a result of their appeal to a sense of Acehnese ethnic solidarity.

National elections have presented a more complex picture for PA leaders and Aceh’s voters. Local parties are allowed to run only for provincial and district legislative seats, which means that PA leaders are free to endorse national parties in contests for the People’s Representative Council (the DPR, Indonesia’s national parliament), if they choose, but they cannot run for such positions under their own party banner. They also have an open slate when it comes to endorsing presidential candidates.

In 2009, many voters in the north of the province voted informally by failing to correctly fill-out their ballots for the national election, while at the same time voting for former rebels in district and provincial contests. This partial boycott was a result of continued resentment of Indonesia, instructions from local PA personalities, and the absence of former rebel candidates in national races. This said, most of the province showed intense support for SBY’s Partai Demokrat in the national parliament vote, with percentages rivaling PA dominance in the provincial and district legislatures. PA leaders suggested that the success of SBY and PD was due to their endorsement—indeed, some PA politicians supported the PD in a personal capacity during the election.

Recognising that he would win the July 2009 presidential elections, former rebels supported SBY’s reelection. Then-governor Irwandi joined SBY’s campaign team, as did many PA politicians. Indeed, SBY won in a landslide, scoring 93 per cent of the vote in Aceh, and PA leaders took credit for his victory. ICG reported that ‘Partai Aceh in 2009 delivered more than 90 per cent of the vote in Aceh for the President.’ This seems questionable - PA sided with a candidate who was clearly going to win. It is not clear how much the support of PA and its political machine the KPA helped SBY in 2009.. Even so, as a result of district, provincial, and national executive and legislative elections, the former rebels feel unstoppable.

Strange bedfellows

The 2014 elections will provide a major test of PA political control and the loyalty of Acehnese voters. Unlike in 2009, when most Acehnese voters supported SBY because of the role he had played in the peace process, in 2014 PA wants Acehnese voters to support a national party and a presidential candidate they would be unlikely to choose on their own. The former rebels are aligned with none other than Prabowo and his Gerindra party. This is a remarkable development, surprising even for observers of Southeast Asian politics.

In 1990, fresh from a posting in East Timor, Prabowo led Kostrad (Army Strategic Reserve) forces into Aceh, ushering in a decade of intense human rights abuses. Prabowo’s unit burned-down the houses of suspected rebel supporters and terrorised residents of northern Aceh. Geoffrey Robinson, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), notes that Prabowo’s tenure in Aceh ‘coincided with the onset of the worst violence.’ Prabowo was more than an abusive officer, he was part of the Suharto family. As a military official, businessman, and former son-in-law of Suharto, Prabowo epitomises the worst of the New Order.

To suggest that Prabowo is unpopular in Aceh would be an understatement. Gerindra won less than three per cent of Aceh’s national legislative vote in 2009, and the Megawati-Prabowo ticket in the presidential elections that year came last, with 2.3 per cent. PA leaders are aware that their new allies are hated in Aceh. In order to reinforce their ethno-nationalist credentials prior to the election, and assist their new allies, they have embarked on highly contentious symbolic fights with Jakarta. Emblematically, the PA has been working to make the former rebel flag an official provincial symbol..

In 2009, PA support for PD and SBY was informal. In 2014 however, PA is officially aligned with Prabowo. Rumours have spread that Prabowo spent Rp.50 billion on behalf of the winning candidates in Aceh’s 2012 elections for governor. During the campaign, Prabowo allies in the local military command such as Sunarko, Djali Yusuf, and M. Yahya campaigned on behalf of the Zaini Abdullah PA ticket and then aligned with Gerindra. After the election, Gerindra donated three modern ambulances (plastered with Prabowo’s image) to the province in a highly publicised ceremony. Governor Zaini has publicly endorsed Prabowo, joining his presidential campaign team, while Prabowo has spoken of his ‘intimate’ relationship with PA. Prabowo is openly building a Gerindra stronghold in Aceh through the former rebels.

As the list of national legislative candidates has come out, it has become clear that former rebels are running for Gerindra in Aceh. In the Pidie Regency, the party’s legislative candidate is Fadhullah, a local PA secretary and Gerindra’s provincial treasurer whose ‘work experience’ entry at the Elections Commission reads ‘Head of GAM Commando Operations in Pidie Region.’ In Banda Aceh, Gerindra’s candidate is TA Khalid, another former GAM fighter, who serves as Gerindra’s provincial secretary. Other former rebels playing roles within Gerindra include chairman Maulisman Hanafiah, and deputy governor and KPA head, Muzakkir Manaf, who is serving as Gerindra’s official provincial ‘patron’.

The common cause found by PA and Prabowo is a remarkable development. It shows how money and power dominates in Aceh’s politics, rather than principles or ideology. It is also an important lesson about the potential role of local parties in Indonesia. Instead of PA promoting narrow parochial interests at the expense of the country, patronage represents a centrifugal force keeping the country together.

The Prabowo test

PA’s alliance with Prabowo and Gerindra poses serious challenges to supporters. On the one hand, unlike in 2009, GAM supporters will be able to vote for former rebels in the national parliamentary elections. On the other hand, it means they will be asked to support a party and a president representing the very worst of the Indonesia that GAM fought against. Will Acehnese voters follow PA and vote for former rebels under the Gerindra ticket in the April parliamentary elections, as well as vote for Prabowo in the July presidential elections? Or, will Acehnese voters finally diverge from the former rebels, selecting other candidates or simply failing to fill-in their ballots?

It may be easier to vote for Gerindra in the parliamentary elections, since this would mean sending former rebels to Jakarta, than it will be to vote for Prabowo for president. Of course, it depends on the final slate of candidates and their running mates. Former governor Irwandi may yet play an important role. After losing the tough 2012 contest for governor, Irwandi vowed to form a rival GAM party for the 2014 elections. His National Aceh Party (PNA) has not gained much traction, in part due to the murder of one of its local leaders. Irwandi has been outspoken in his criticism of the Prabowo alliance and remains popular throughout Aceh. If Irwandi threw his weight behind a rival national party, this could represent a major challenge to the PA-Gerindra alliance.

While early predictions are notoriously problematic in Indonesia, the PA-Gerindra alliance does allow for some guesses. In regional legislative races, Partai Aceh will continue to dominate in ethnically Acehnese areas of the province, although they will not so easily command votes in national races. This may represent the first setback Partai Aceh have faced at the ballot box, and strengthen the hand of Irwandi’s allies in the PNA. The northern districts will be the most interesting to watch. This region constituted the rebel heartland and suffered the most under the New Order. Are voters in districts like Bireuen, Pidie, and North Aceh more pro-PA or more anti-New Order?

Along the west coast, in the district of Aceh Besar, and perhaps in East Aceh, where GAM loyalty is less deep, Acehnese voters will be less conflicted supporting other parties. For ethnic minorities, who have long been at odds with ethnic Acehnese rebels, many officials are allied to Prabowo, who controls a 97,000-hectare forestry reserve in Central Aceh. Prabowo’s alliance with the former rebels puts minority leaders in an awkward place. This tension could open the way for Golkar to maintain and extend its traditional control over these areas, halting Gerindra’s inroads.

The 2014 elections have much riding on them. Indonesian democracy has been good news for Southeast Asia, a region which has proven a recalcitrant holdout in the worldwide democratisation wave, and for the Muslim world, whose experience with democracy has been even less inspiring. For Aceh, Prabowo and Gerindra represent an acid test for rebel loyalty. If Acehnese voters follow the former rebels and support Prabowo, this will indicate tremendous influence and enduring PA power. However defiance could weaken the stranglehold the former rebels currently enjoy over the province’s political affairs.

Shane J. Barter ( is associate director of the Pacific Basin Research Center and an assistant professor of comparative politics at Soka University of America in southern California.


Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}

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