A Win for Aceh's Rebels

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With the preliminary results from Aceh's first direct gubernatorial elections in, it seems as if the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 has accomplished what decades of armed struggle did not: a peaceful resolution to the separatist demands of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Tuesday's elections for the province's new governor saw a former rebel come away with a decisive victory, defying predictions of a close race that would push voting to a second round and sending a strong message to Jakarta that GAM is still a force to be reckoned with in the province.

With candidates needing a minimum of 25% of the vote to claim outright victory, former GAM spokesman Irwandi Jusuf and his running mate Mohammad Nazar came in with an estimated 39% of the vote. Their closest rivals, Humam Hamid and Hasbi Abdullah, both associated with the older GAM leadership faction exiled in Sweden for decades, trailed with a distant 16%. Official results will not be announced until Jan. 2 but congratulations, even from the central government, were already rolling in for the pair set to become the first-ever directly-elected leaders of the once independence-minded province on the northern tip of Sumatra island. "Whichever pair is winning, they deserve it and we must congratulate them," Vice President Jusuf Kalla told the media.

Long-time observers of the Aceh conflict, however, call the victory a repudiation of the central government's policy in the province, where more than 15,000 people died in a decades-long struggle against its rule. "This sends a strong message to Jakarta that it needs to listen to the demands of the Acehnese from all quarters," says Kusnanto Anggoro from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

After the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami struck Aceh, killing an estimated 170,000 people, GAM and government leaders took the first steps towards ending the movement's struggle for independence in exchange for a certain level of autonomy, culminating in last year's peace agreement in Helsinki, Finland. But this week's vote seems to indicate that ordinary Acehnese want even greater control over their affairs as they try to rebuild the devastated province. While the Helsinki accord helped create an environment conducive to rebuilding, Acenese have complained that the government agencies set up to handle reconstruction efforts have been ineffective and mired in bureaucracy, with thousands still living in makeshift housing despite billions of dollars in donations. "The slowness of the government in rebuilding Aceh contributed to [Irwandi and Nazar's] victory," says Kusnanto. "GAM was able to take advantage of the people's disappointment and capitalize on it politically."

Irwandi and Nazar, who both spent time in prison for challenging Jakarta's rule over the province, have said they will make rebuilding a priority. But they also need to transform GAM from an independence movement into a mainstream political party. At the moment, it's not, which is why the pair ran as independent candidates for governor. Their goal is to create a party that can contest elections for legislators representing Aceh in the national parliament. "GAM will be busy setting up the party machinery for [2009]," predicts political analyst Marcus Meitzner. "And Irwandi and Nazar are the only ones prepared to challenge the central government."

Until that time comes, the country will be waiting to see if the two former political prisoners can work with a government that once put them behind bars. It won't be an easy task: speeding reconstruction in Aceh is an immense challenge, and its new leaders will also have to negotiate how far the province's rights to autonomy—and its revenue-sharing obligations with Jakarta—extend. Meanwhile, they still have to figure out a way to redevelop a local economy that has been run into the ground by the tsunami. "There are still many unfinished items in the peace agreement," says Paul Rowland of the National Democratic Institute. "And it is sometimes easier to run a war than win the peace."