Aceh’s Local Elections: The Role of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM)
Aceh’s Local Elections: The Role of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM)
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Briefing 57 / Asia

Aceh’s Local Elections: The Role of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM)

On 11 December 2006 local elections will take place in Aceh, the once war-torn region of Indonesia where ex-guerrillas are now running for office.

I. Overview

On 11 December 2006 local elections will take place in Aceh, the once war-torn region of Indonesia where ex-guerrillas are now running for office. The logistical challenges have been huge, particularly in registering so many people displaced by the December 2004 tsunami. But the political challenge has been even greater: how to ensure that the elections facilitate the transition of the former insurgency, the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) from an armed struggle to a political movement, thereby reinforcing its 15 August 2005 peace agreement with the Indonesian government. A rift that has emerged within the GAM leadership has complicated that transition.

That rift, which GAM spokesmen call “differences of opinion”, pits the old guard leadership that was based in Sweden throughout the conflict against younger figures who stayed in Aceh and fought. It erupted into the open in mid-2006 as the organisation sought to set political strategy and decide on candidates for the elections. In Aceh, unlike other parts of Indonesia, candidates without party affiliation are allowed, enabling GAM members to stand as independents. The old guard supported one party-backed slate for governor and deputy governor, the younger leaders an independent ticket. One of the candidates was physically attacked by his rival’s supporters on 22 November in Bireuen, Aceh. On 27 November, in what initially seemed an effort at reconciliation, GAM announced at a press conference that it would stay neutral as an organisation. In fact, the division remains deep and could affect not only these elections but GAM’s plans to build its own political party.

The split is significant because so much hangs on the December poll. For GAM itself, the elections are a test of political strength and an indication of how much work it will have to do to win the much more important 2009 elections, when seats in the provincial parliament will be at stake. Senior GAM strategists believe that if they can control that parliament, they can set the political agenda for Aceh’s future. In this sense, the December elections are a dry run, and it will not be disastrous if they lose most races, as long as they can get a respectable percentage of the vote.

For the armed forces and many Jakarta-based officials, the polls are a test of GAM’s good faith. Will GAM candidates refrain from using the separatist flag or suggesting that independence is just around the corner? Senior military officers make little effort to disguise their suspicions that GAM is exploiting the peace to rebuild and regroup and is only paying lip-service to Indonesian sovereignty. (The regional military commander wanted all GAM candidates to swear an oath of loyalty to the Indonesian state but was persuaded to drop the idea.)

For many Acehnese in former conflict areas, the elections are a gauge of whether the peace will hold. An IFES survey conducted in September-October 2006 suggested 93 per cent of Acehnese believe the elections will help secure the peace but 55 per cent are concerned about violence, whether by ex-GAM, ex-militias, government security forces or political party supporters. Before the incident in Bireuen, there were fears that the military or intelligence service would prevent a GAM victory; that GAM would use intimidation and threats; and that long-dormant militias would reemerge as goon squads for non-GAM candidates. Now there are fears of intra-GAM violence as well, although both sides insist there will be no repeat of the 22 November attack, and the first days of the formal campaign, which began on 24 November, have gone smoothly.

This briefing examines how and why the rift occurred and its possible impact on the elections. It is based on interviews conducted during repeated Crisis Group visits to Aceh in 2006.

Jakarta/Brussels, 29 November 2006

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