Elections in Aceh and Timor Leste: After the Struggle
Elections in Aceh and Timor Leste: After the Struggle
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Elections in Aceh and Timor Leste: After the Struggle

Years after two very different peace settlements in Aceh and Timor Leste, the theme of the unfinished struggle continues to shape election politics. In either place there is no question of a return to conflict with Jakarta as the power struggles are now internal. But the challenge for both is to transform "struggle" from an end in itself toward the kind of political competition that will deliver results for voters.

Last week, voters chose a governor and other local officials in Aceh, the Indonesian province where Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels ended a 30-year fight for independence in exchange for greater autonomy under the 2005 Helsinki agreement. On Monday, residents of Timor Leste elected their third president since Indonesia's 1999 withdrawal ended 24 years of armed resistance there.

The Aceh governor's election was chiefly a contest between two former GAM members. The incumbent Irwandi Yusuf, the former GAM propaganda chief, had hoped to win on the basis of popular welfare programs he had introduced during his five-year tenure, such as free medical care and scholarships for study outside Aceh.

He ran again as an independent, hoping to attract the support of the ruling Partai Aceh (PA), founded by rival GAM stalwarts in 2007, or failing that, avoid alienating their supporters. The strategy failed: he lost to the PA ticket (Zaini Abdullah and Muzakir Manaf) by 56 percent to 29 percent.

As we travelled through the province in the days before the polls, we were told three things were at stake: peace, security and prosperity. But when asked what was the key factor behind how people were voting, the answer from all of those who foretold Partai Aceh's win was far simpler:"the struggle". A strong resistance brooks little dissent; those who might have voted otherwise feared being labeled "traitors".

Partai Aceh helped promote this thinking in part through direct intimidation of voters. But this alone cannot explain its wide margin of victory. It also capitalized on the politics of struggle in three important ways. It built a campaign around the need for fuller implementation of the Helsinki agreement.

While there was almost no discussion of what this means, it sent a powerful message that the fight was not yet over. PA also built on the strong support for Muzakir Manaf, former GAM military commander, who while running for deputy governor was by far the larger draw.

Loyalty to Muzakir among former GAM fighters, particularly among the lower ranks, was key. Finally, it drew on the symbols of the struggle, most notably through its flag, heavily reminiscent of that used by GAM and which was omnipresent in many parts of Aceh throughout the campaign.

In Timor Leste, the rallying cry of the "unfinished struggle" is also important, even if the real power struggles are internal. On Monday, former guerrilla commander and armed forces chief Taur Matan Ruak (Jose Maria de Vasconcelos) defeated his opponent Lu Olo (Francisco Gutierrez), Fretilin party president and former political commissar in the resistance.

Since independence, Fretilin has sought the role of standard bearer, marshalling the Fretilin flag and drawing on the history of the resistance in its rhetoric. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão has challenged that legacy by setting up his own party (CNRT) and bringing some key veterans to his side.

Throughout the presidential campaign, the question of who contributed most to Timorese independence has been paramount. Gusmão became the most prominent supporter of his former deputy, Matan Ruak, explaining they must work together to further the struggle for the people's welfare rather than simply independence.

The strength of the Timorese resistance movement lay in its dispersed nature, with leaders in the Diaspora and a vast network of clandestine cells across Timor, Bali and Java supporting the armed front in the mountains.

But after independence, a country of just over one million people no longer offers quite so many leadership posts. This has promoted new fractures among the political elite, as well as brought back the specter of earlier splits.

The bitter wounds left after Gusmão split the Falintil army from Fretilin control in 1987 were among the leading grievances in the violent confrontations of Timor Leste’s 2006 crisis. This fracturing of the resistance had a negative impact on short-term stability, but is a key contributor to the country's long-term democratic health.

Aceh's post-settlement history has been shorter and while there have been deep splits within GAM, particularly between those who lived in exile and those who remained fighting at home, they have not yet been reflected in the growth of other strong local parties, allowed in Aceh since the Helsinki settlement.

Partai Aceh says it wants to invite in younger experts and academics to help advise those in its ranks who have little experience governing. But as it now controls both the provincial legislative and the executive (the current parliamentary speaker is the elected governor's brother), the only real check on its performance will need to be achieved through the rise of credible alternatives.

More decisive fracturing within the ranks of former GAM may be the path to longer-term stability. Parliaments in Aceh and Timor Leste have proven weak: the former in producing the kind of provincial regulations that will give teeth to the 2006 Law on Governing Aceh while remaining consistent with national laws; the latter in providing anything but a rubber-stamp to government legislation.

Both will also need to guard against the capture of the legacy of the resistance by any one party. Timor Leste has been far more successful at avoiding this, but efforts to formalize the role of veterans as guardians of the State through a consultative council and gain more control over government contracts (as in Aceh) could jeopardize this success.

Viewed together, Aceh and Timor Leste show the challenges of making a smooth transition from resistance struggle to multiparty competition. While the "unfinished struggle" proves a captivating campaign theme, it must not be allowed to hold captive broader democratic competition. The struggle to reduce poverty, maintain security and improve welfare requires very different tactics.

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