How Will Partai Aceh Govern?
How Will Partai Aceh Govern?
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia

How Will Partai Aceh Govern?

The extraordinary victory of Partai Aceh (Aceh Party) raises questions about how Aceh will develop in the next five years. Will it grow into an authoritarian one-party enclave in the middle of democratic Indonesia or become a model for the transformation of a guerrilla movement into a responsible political force? 

It is worth looking at why Partai Aceh won by such huge margins: close to 55 per cent overall and more than 70 per cent in the populous districts along the east coast. Intimidation, while significant, cannot explain these numbers.

Acehnese told us repeatedly last week that the election was about peace and security – avoiding any return to conflict and ensuring a sense of personal safety. Partai Aceh leaders successfully portrayed themselves as both the leaders of the guerrilla struggle and the architects of the 2005 peace. They also suggested vaguely, however, that if they weren’t elected, there could be trouble.

Some gave other reasons for choosing the party. Several young intellectuals argued that GAM’s transition from guerrilla group to party was incomplete, and it needed more time to finish the process. If the former rebels lost this time, they might opt out of the political process in a way that would have long-term negative implications for Aceh. 

The most important factor in the vote, however, was almost certainly the party’s ability to mobilise the populace through the Komite Peralihan Aceh or KPA, the post-conflict name for the old guerrilla structure--and here is where some of the problems lie. The KPA is led down to the village level by former commanders, and in many areas it is indistinguishable from the party. 

The KPA has no legal status, but its senior members are often powerful local warlords, grown rich through securing construction contracts and other concessions. As former combatants, they are used to obeying orders from above and securing obedience from below. When a political party is superimposed on this structure, the result has been an often autocratic organisation with little tolerance for dissent.  

In Langsa, we were sitting with a group of NGO leaders discussing the election, when suddenly one lowered his voice and whispered, “Careful, it’s not sterile here.” In the Soeharto days, that used to be the reaction when a suspected military or intelligence agent appeared. This time, it was a local Partai Aceh man who had entered, and our friends were afraid of being overheard; the party is widely believed to have its own network of informers. Several local offices of the election oversight body, Panwas, said it was difficult to follow up reports of Partai Aceh violations because witnesses were afraid to come forward.

If the party is to lead Aceh in a positive direction it needs to disassociate itself from and/or dissolve the KPA, gradually rid itself of military attributes (the party’s paramilitary task force or satgas wears red berets and camouflage uniforms) and recruit new blood on college campuses.  A younger, better educated faction of the party says it is trying to open the party up and make it less exclusive, but it won’t happen overnight.

This raises the question of what Partai Aceh’s political agenda will be going forward, now that it controls both the executive and legislative branches of the provincial government.  While the campaign was devoid of specifics, the party has a detailed platform for preserving the peace, improving government, reducing poverty, and strengthening Achenese culture and values. If the party uses it as a guideline for policies, it could win over some sceptics, although the track record of the party’s legislators is poor.

One party worker said the top legislative priority was the draft regulation on the Wali Nanggroe, an institution agreed on in Helsinki as a ceremonial position for the late Hasan di Tiro. Malek Mahmud, GAM’s former “prime minister” and Partai Aceh’s founder, has since assumed the title and role that some in the party’s old guard see as a kind of constitutional monarch. How the final version of this regulation emerges will send important signals about the party’s willingness to let go of some of its feudal tendencies. 

Aceh’s development will also depend on Jakarta and the willingness of national institutions to confront the party if it challenges the constitution or acts outside the law. Local police have shown a distinct reluctance to move against the KPA. When several members were implicated in the killings of Javanese workers in December and January, it took the elite Detachment 88 from Jakarta to make the arrests, and many Acehnese doubt that there is much interest in probing the case further. 

Likewise when the party last year refused to accept a Constitutional Court ruling, Home Affairs seemed to take its side, on the grounds that the largest party in Aceh had to be “accommodated” – and it was. The lesson may be that defiance of national institutions carries no costs, particularly as 2014 draws closer.

Many Acehnese we met assume that if its elected officials don’t deliver, they will be thrown out in five years. But with an absence of checks and balances, combined with an ability to direct significant resources to members, the party may be difficult to dislodge.

Whatever happens, Aceh’s experiment in post-conflict governance will be closely watched.

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