Elections in Aceh

The first widescale elections in the Indonesian province of Aceh in thirty years seem to have concluded successfully, meaning that a majority have chosen those that are to represent them in government. The question that still remains, however, is whether the establishment of democratic government and the election of new leadership will help the province, which nurtured an unproductive culture of violence and fear during the long war of independence with the Indonesian government before it was devestated by the Asian tsunami in 2004, recover and develop and become a functional unit within larger Indonesia, or whether it will only serve as a new manifestation of a worrisome balance of power status quo.

One of the largest challenges to democracy and peace in Aceh is the empowerment of the civil society that has been suppressed during thirty years of conflict. An elite class and a patron-client system is well established, the powerful maintaining a balance and the poor kept in their place. The new government, along with the disruption to the status quo vis-a-vis the tsunami disaster and the end of the conflict, has an opportunity to reshape the society and promote justice, rights and equality for all.

At this point, it appears that Irwandi Yousuf, a former leader of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the organization that warred with Indonesia for so long, has been elected as governor of Aceh. “Indonesia’s ex-rebel leader sweeps polls” (gulf news).

Another important unknown in Aceh is how the new government there is going to develop in light of the special powers it has to draft legislation based on Syaria, or Islamic law. This practice, which is illegal in most other Indonesian provinces, is allowed in Aceh by virtue the special autonomy it gained through the peace agreement with Jakarta following the end of the conflict. This is but a single instant, but it could signify the kind of developments that might take place in Aceh, developments that could mean the controversy over the region’s autonomy and new government is far from over. “Draft law calls for amputation of thieves’ hands in Indonesia’s Aceh” (Internatioal Herald Tribune).

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