Indonesia: Averting Election Violence in Aceh
Asia Briefing N°135
29 Feb 2012
In less than two months, on 9 April, Aceh will go to the polls to elect a governor and vice governor, as well as seventeen district heads and deputies. Despite rhetorical commitments on the part of all contenders to a peaceful election, the potential for isolated acts of violence between now and then is high; the potential for trouble after the results are announced may be even higher, especially if it is a close election. Getting as many trained monitors to Aceh as possible in the coming weeks is critical.
Whether violence materialises may depend on several factors:
the number of election monitors deployed and the speed with which they get to Aceh. The campaign is already well underway for all practical purposes, even though officially it does not begin until 22 March. The monitoring needs to start now, not days before the election;
the speed with which the police can identify and arrest the gunmen responsible for shootings in December 2011 and January 2012 that took the lives of ten men, most of them poor Javanese workers. The killings are widely believed to have been politically motivated;
the ability of the election oversight committee (Panitia Pengawas Pilkada) to investigate reported violations and quickly take action; and
the ability of leading candidates to control their supporters in the Aceh Transition Committee (Komite Peralihan Aceh, KPA), the organisation of former guerrilla commanders.
Partai Aceh, the local political party created by the leadership of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM), the former rebel group, has played on the threat of renewed conflict to get the election on its own terms. Its main goal was to have Irwandi Yusuf, who was elected governor in December 2006 and now seeks a second five-year term, forced from office so that he could not use his position to keep himself in the public eye, ensure funds flowed to his supporters or request the deployment of security forces in a way that might have a bearing on the election.
To this end, it engaged in a number of legal manoeuvres, on the pretext of safeguarding Acehnese autonomy and the integrity of the 2006 Law on the Governing of Aceh (Undang-Undang Pemerintahan Aceh), the legal underpinning of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that ended GAM’s 30-year insurgency against the Indonesian government. In particular, it challenged a Constitutional Court decision that annulled one provision of the law, thereby enabling independent (non-party) candidates to contest the elections originally scheduled for late 2011. Irwandi, based on the court’s ruling, intended to stand as an independent, and Partai Aceh was hoping to block him. The provincial parliament, which Partai Aceh controls, also refused to pass a regulation (qanun) on elections allowing independent candidates, a move that prevented the local election commission from scheduling the polls.
With the help of pressure from Jakarta and a series of killings in December and January that seemed to suggest a high potential for violence, the election was repeatedly postponed, from 10 October 2011 to 14 November to 24 December, then to 16 February 2012 and finally to 9 April. With the last change, Partai Aceh achieved its objective: on 8 February 2012, when his term expired, Irwandi stepped down as governor. The home affairs ministry appointed a caretaker, Tarmizi Karim, a native of North Aceh, who will serve until a newly elected governor is inaugurated.
The manoeuvring deepened a bitter divide between Irwandi and the Partai Aceh leadership under Malik Mahmud, GAM’s former “prime minister”. Their mutual antagonism first came to public attention in the run-up to the 2006 election in which Irwandi ran against Malik’s choice for governor and won. Its history goes back much further, however, to differences between the exiled diaspora, represented by Malik and the man who is now Partai Aceh’s candidate for governor, Zaini Abdullah, and GAM members like Irwandi who stayed behind in Aceh. The shootings in December and January have raised concerns that more violence between these two camps will follow.
Jakarta/Brussels, 29 February 2012