The election for Aceh governor and other local executive posts – now scheduled for 14 November 2011 – has deepened an old rivalry within the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) between incumbent Governor Irwandi Yusuf, its former propaganda chief, and those around its ex-“prime minister”, Malik Mahmud. The two factions ran against each other in 2006, with Irwandi defeating the ticket backed by Malik. Irwandi is leading in the polls again, but five years later, the context is very different with Malik and his allies controlling the GAM political party, Partai Aceh. Sporadic violence between the rival camps is likely but not on a scale to cause serious concern. The bigger problem for Aceh is how to curb the autocratic tendencies of Partai Aceh without undermining the political gains won in the 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that brought an end to three decades of conflict.
In 2006 Irwandi ran as an independent and the Malik-backed slate ran under the banner of the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP), a national party. In 2008, however, GAM created Partai Aceh, a local party that turned into a juggernaut at the 2009 polls, delivering as much as 76 per cent of the vote in one Aceh district and making it the dominant faction in the provincial parliament. The party was controlled by Malik’s men, and while Irwandi backed it, he kept his distance from the leadership.
As electoral manoeuvring began in 2010, the question was whether the two factions would find some sort of accommodation through which Partai Aceh would support Irwandi’s bid for re-election, creating another unstoppable political machine. Instead, in February 2011, Partai Aceh selected the former Sweden-based GAM “foreign minister”, Dr Zaini Abdullah, and the former head of the GAM armed wing, Muzakkir Manaf, as its candidates for governor and vice governor. Irwandi’s only options were to run as an independent or as the candidate of one of the national parties, but either way, polls showed him beating Zaini.
Partai Aceh thus decided to try to obstruct his candidacy. The most obvious way was to ban independent candidates. The 2006 Law On the Governing of Aceh (LOGA), which gives a legal base to the Helsinki peace agreement, provided that independent candidates could contest Aceh’s first local election, but thereafter candidates would have to belong to either local parties – allowed in Aceh and nowhere else – or national ones. In December 2010, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court overturned this provision.
Partai Aceh maintained that the ruling violated Acehnese autonomy and undermined the principle of self-governance in the Helsinki agreement, setting up the issue as one of central versus provincial authority. But its control of the provincial parliament gave it another card to play. Local elections require the local parliament to issue a regulation, in Aceh known as a qanun, setting out electoral procedures. Initially Partai Aceh vowed to enact a qanun that banned independent candidates, despite the Constitutional Court ruling. But knowing, perhaps, that any such regulation would be overturned in Jakarta, it resorted to procrastination instead; its lawmakers always found something more important to do than finishing the electoral qanun.
The strategy seemed to be to delay enacting the regulation until it would become impossible to hold the elections before the current term of the governor expires. Jakarta would then have to appoint a caretaker administrator until elections could be held, and since incumbents cannot serve as caretakers, this would prevent Irwandi from using the resources of the governorship to promote his candidacy. The central government, however, would have to pay for any caretakers, and since the failure to enact a qanun seemed to be the result of deliberate dilatoriness on Partai Aceh’s part, officials in Jakarta said that if a new one was not produced on time, the elections would go forward under the regulation used in 2006.
In addition to governor and vice governor, seventeen district-level posts are at stake, many of them controlled by GAM-supported men who ran as independents in 2006 and will now have to choose between Irwandi and Partai Aceh. In the meantime, sporadic incidents of violence have taken place linked to the internal GAM tensions. Partai Aceh is increasingly showing itself to be an autocratic, almost feudal party that brooks no dissent.