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Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections
Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 123 / Asia

Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections

Five years after the first post-conflict elections in Aceh brought  former guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) to power, local elections scheduled for November 2011 are turning into a bitter intra-GAM battle.

I. Overview

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.

Jakarta/Brussels, 15 June 2011

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013