Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

The Aceh Party

The Aceh Party

The elections were tense in Aceh but in the end helped to consolidate the peace process

Blair Palmer

      Victory for the Aceh Party, but will it sink or swim?
      Adrian Morel

April’s legislative elections may have seemed like business as usual in most of Indonesia, but in Aceh the poll was preceded by mysterious murders, widespread intimidation, and a series of arson attacks against party offices. There was also intense concern, both in Aceh and in Jakarta, about what the results would mean for Aceh’s peace process. In the end, although the shortcomings were many, widespread violence did not break out, there were no major disruptions on polling day, and the results mean that peace is likely to continue at least into the medium term.

The elections were an important part of the peace process which had put an end to a three-decade conflict between GAM (the Free Aceh Movement) and the Indonesian government. The Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) of August 2005 stipulated that local parties could be formed in Aceh to contest these elections, unlike in other parts of the country where only parties showing they have a broad nationwide presence are allowed to run. Former GAM members formed the ‘Aceh Party’ (Partai Aceh, or PA), and five other local parties were formed, to contest parliament seats at the district and provincial levels (but not seats in the national parliament, which were still reserved for national parties). The opportunity for GAM members to compete for political power without having to work through the national political parties was a vital part of the peace deal, since without this avenue to access power in Aceh GAM may have been unwilling to give up demands for independence.

The 2009 elections were actually the second stage of political inclusion of former combatants. The MoU had also mandated that independent candidates could contest local elections (for district heads and governor) held in Aceh in 2006 and 2007. Former GAM members or nominees won as governor and as district head in ten of 21 of Aceh’s districts. After these victories, it was widely anticipated that the Aceh Party would do well in 2009. The main other contender among the local parties was believed to be SIRA, the party of the deputy governor, which had a following particularly amongst post-1998 activists in the Aceh student movement.

Violence and intimidation

However, the lead-up to the 2009 elections was marred by heightened tensions and violence, and there was widespread intimidation during the campaign period. A number of party offices throughout the province became the target of arson, grenade attacks, and drive-by shootings, causing no fatalities but raising political tensions dramatically. The Aceh Party was the most frequent target. From September 2008 until April 2009 there were 32 such attacks, with 27 targeting Aceh Party offices, four targeting the offices of other local parties, and only one targeting the office of a national party.

five mysterious murders of people associated with the Aceh Party or the KPA

There were also five mysterious murders of people associated with the Aceh Party or the KPA (the Aceh Transitional Committee), an organisation representing former GAM members. These murders were not solved quickly, and although some seem to have been related to economic competition rather than political grudges, they heightened tensions and augmented the image that cadres and supporters of the Aceh Party were oppressed.

Once the period of active campaigning began in March 2009, various forms of intimidation put pressure on both campaigners and voters. Many parties reported feeling ‘not brave enough’ to campaign in regions where GAM was traditionally strong, such as along the east coast. Party representatives explained that people tore down all non-PA posters and banners as soon as campaigners left PA base areas, and that they could not hope to get many votes in such places anyway as most of the people were loyal to PA. Those who were not, they said, were subject to intimidation by PA cadres warning them not to listen to other parties. Although all parties were assigned dates and locations to hold open rallies, in such PA-dominated areas very few parties used these rights. One election official described this situation by saying that in his district, ‘there was no democracy at all’.

In parts of the province where GAM had not been strong during the conflict period, it was PA supporters who felt intimidated. There were some reports of bureaucrats and military figures advising citizens to stay away from local parties. In the central highlands district of Bener Meriah, an event was held in February to remember victims of the ‘GAM separatist conflict’. According to a member of the SIRA party, the district head had spoken at the event, reminding locals not to vote for local parties as they were all GAM people. Flyers also circulated containing slogans meant to denigrate local parties, such as that Hasan Tiro (the supreme leader of GAM) had a Jewish wife and that he would sell all of Aceh’s natural resources to foreigners if PA won.

The five other local parties were caught in the middle, intimidated by both PA supporters who viewed PA as the only valid local party and by Indonesian nationalists who viewed all local parties as traitorous. In some locations PA supporters campaigned by spreading the word that PA was the only party that had signed the Helsinki MoU, and other local parties were therefore incapable of continuing the peace process and were stooges of Jakarta. From the other side, rumours circulated that all local parties would push for independence if elected, and that this would lead to a resumption of conflict. Several officials from a local party based on the east coast reported receiving three to four death threats per day by text message throughout the campaign period. They shared the opinion that there was no democracy in this election.


Election day passed with relatively few reported incidents. However there were allegations that order and security at voting booths was poor in some areas. In areas with strong PA support it was claimed that PA supporters gathered near the booths and pressured voters, and that many polling booth officials were loyal PA supporters. In areas with low levels of support for GAM in the past, it was local parties which claimed there was intimidation towards their supporters at the booths.

‘there was no democracy at all here’

The results were counted behind schedule, and many allegations of fraud in the counting process emerged, although most were small scale. Results at the provincial and district levels showed a clear victory for the Aceh Party, which won 33 of 69 seats in Aceh’s provincial parliament, plus a majority of seats in seven of Aceh’s district parliaments (of which there are now 23 due to administrative changes since 2006). In another nine districts, PA got between 20 per cent and 36 per cent of seats, a minority but more than any other party got. The remaining seven districts were very fractured, won by national parties (PD and Golkar) but with seats split between many parties.

Aside from PA, the big winner in Aceh was Partai Demokrat (PD), the party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. PD won six of the 13 Aceh seats in the national parliament, but also did well at the provincial and district levels, taking second place behind PA at provincial level and coming first or second in many districts.

These results show strong support for the peace process. PD got votes in areas where it did not campaign at all, with many voters seemingly voting for PD as a show of their appreciation for the peace process organised under the president’s direction. Even though presidential candidate Jusuf Kalla was also instrumental in achieving peace in Aceh, his Golkar party did not receive a windfall of support as did PD, perhaps because of ongoing distrust towards the party which was in power during many of the conflict years. While the success of the Aceh Party clearly shows this party enjoys wide support, from interviews in the field it appears that some voted for PA not because they had supported GAM’s struggle for independence in the past but more in the hopes that a PA victory was the best method of securing the peace for the future.

Local parties other than PA did not fare well. PDA (the Aceh Sovereignty Party) was the only local party other than PA to get into the provincial parliament, with a single seat. At the district level, local parties other than PA obtained far fewer seats than they had hoped. Of the total 645 seats in the 23 district parliaments, PDA got 11 seats, SIRA got seven, PBA (the Aceh Unity Party) got four, PRA (the Aceh People's Party) got two, and PAAS (the Prosperous and Safe Aceh Party) did not get any. Election regulations stipulate that local parties must get at least five per cent of seats in the provincial parliament, or five per cent of seats in half of the district parliaments, in order to be able to contest the 2014 elections. Of the six local parties, only PA exceeded this threshold, and thus the other five will not be involved in the next elections.

Female candidates did not fare well in this election in Aceh. While many women were recruited in order to meet the stipulated 30 per cent quota for each party, the majority of these candidates did not earn enough individual votes to be elected. This was related to several factors. Some of these female candidates were inexperienced politicians recruited merely to achieve the quota, and did not campaign actively. Additionally, many voters in Aceh still see men as more appropriate for leadership roles. As one male official from a (non-Islamic) national party told me: ‘the world was created for men, women cannot be leaders…women cannot think rationally for one week per month, so how could they make decisions?’

PA and PD, the two big winners, stood out amongst the other parties in that their supporters tended to vote for the party in general, not for a particular candidate. Votes for other parties tended to be cast for particular candidates rather than for the party. This is related to campaigning styles. PA deliberately emphasised party solidarity, with candidates campaigning together. Candidates of other parties usually campaigned individually and competed with each other for seats. Also, PA candidates generally lacked private wealth with which they could run individual campaigns. PD probably received mostly party votes because in many cases voters were not swayed by a particular PD candidate, but rather wanted to make a general statement of support for SBY’s role in achieving peace in Aceh.

Conflict resolution?

The election suffered from many failings, including intimidation, lack of freedom to campaign, mysterious violence, and allegations of fraud. Yet as a post-conflict election, it was not a failure. It does not seem that the final tally massively misrepresents the will of the people, and PA’s success in this election means that large-scale conflict is very unlikely to resume in the short to medium term. Former GAM supporters now have the chance to pursue their goals through the extensive power they wield in the executive and legislative branches of local government.

Several officials from a local party based on the east coast reported receiving three to four death threats per day by text message

However, challenges remain. The transition from a military movement to a political one with democratic processes reaching down to grassroots level has not yet been completed. Some PA members may have difficulty in adjusting to the challenges of legislative work, and tensions may rise if PA legislators find their policy goals thwarted by administrative procedures or by opposition within parliament.

Will the new PA legislators manage to change the way local parliaments are run, using their pro-poor stance to reduce corruption and incompetence, or will they eventually operate just like the political elites they have long criticised? Those former GAM members who won executive positions a few years ago are facing challenges of their own, with several district heads being investigated for corruption.

One of PA’s main policy goals is to struggle for full implementation of the Helsinki MoU, which they say was watered down in the Law on Governing Aceh of 2006. Their struggle to revise old laws and to produce new ones in order to do this is likely to cause significant tensions between the Aceh parliament and the national parliament, and also within the Aceh parliament itself. If these tensions can be dealt with through democratic process with good will from all sides, then democracy in Aceh will have played its role in establishing peace.     ii

Blair Palmer (blair.palmer@anu.edu.au) is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Australian National University, and conducted research on conflict and elections in Aceh for a study being conducted jointly by the World Bank’s Conflict and Development Program and Syiah Kuala University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies. The views in this article are those of the author rather than of the institutions conducting the study.

Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009

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