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Local Election Disputes in Indonesia: The Case of North Maluku
Local Election Disputes in Indonesia: The Case of North Maluku
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 86 / Asia

Local Election Disputes in Indonesia: The Case of North Maluku

The election for governor in Indonesia’s North Maluku province was one of the most bitterly contested since direct elections for local government heads were introduced in 2005. Held in November 2007, it remains in dispute more than a year later, although a winner has been named and inaugurated.

I. Overview

The election for governor in Indonesia’s North Maluku province was one of the most bitterly contested since direct elections for local government heads were introduced in 2005. Held in November 2007, it remains in dispute more than a year later, although a winner has been named and inaugurated. At one point it seemed as if violence between the two sides could escalate into serious communal conflict, in an area where thousands had died in religious violence a decade earlier. By early 2009, however, it looked as though Indonesia’s democratic institutions would be resilient enough to cope with an election gone wrong, and the dispute would be quietly resolved in the Constitutional Court. The Court’s decision is expected in early February. The dispute that many thought could trigger further turmoil may prove instead to be a minor wrangle in Indonesia’s largely successful effort to choose local government leaders by direct popular vote.

Almost everything that could have gone wrong with the November 2007 poll did, with poor preparation, allegations of rigging, disputed counting, biased election supervisors, clashes in the streets and more. It took nearly a year to determine the winner and proceed with the inauguration ceremony. The Jakarta political elite took sides, and a resolution effort by the Supreme Court made things worse. The governor and vice-governor were finally installed on 29 September 2008 amid ongoing protests from the losers.

North Maluku, however, is the exception that proves the rule: of some 400 local elections that have taken place since 2005, most have proceeded without incident, and of more than 150 where the results were contested in the courts, most were peacefully resolved. Moreover, a new law that took effect in late 2008 giving power to the Constitutional Court to resolve such disputes should produce quicker and better decisions in races that are as close and divisive as this one.

The North Maluku case is instructive in other ways as well. On the positive side, it shows how past experience with conflict acts as a restraining influence on local politicians, even when political competition assumes an ethnic dimension. North Maluku was engulfed in intense communal fighting in 1999-2000. No one wanted to see violence on that scale again, so even when there was a brief spate of tit-for-tat house burnings in July 2008, political leaders ensured it quickly ended. Similar instances of vio­lence in former conflict areas, most recently in December 2008 in Central Maluku, show that com­munity leaders, politicians and security forces have learned from past experience, so that communal violence is far less likely than it was a decade ago to spiral out of control.

On the negative side, the dispute showed that for all the bitterness and polarisation surrounding the election, it was all about power and not about policies. No one seemed to know or care what the two candidates stood for in terms of delivery of social services or provincial development plans. The issues were rather access to spoils and which ethnic group would get the more lucrative government positions. It was never clear that the average North Moluccan would be better off with one slate rather than the other, raising the question of what all the sound and fury was for.

Most importantly, however, the election shows that Indonesia’s political system can cope with a few cases of institutional failure and even learn from the experience: the new law giving the Constitutional rather than Supreme Court the authority to resolve election disputes is an example of a useful effort to address institutional weakness. The challenge for Indonesia now is to improve the quality of its candidates.

Jakarta/Brussels, 22 January 2009

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