x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Banda Aceh polls will test fragile peace after decades of war

Indonesia's only province ruled by Islamic law votes to elect its governor as well as 17 district heads and deputies.

Acehnese man and woman cast their ballots at a polling station today.
Acehnese man and woman cast their ballots at a polling station today.

BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA // Indonesia's only province ruled by Islamic law went to the polls yesterday to elect its governor, testing a fragile peace following a 30-year war by separatist rebels.

The elections in Aceh were the second since the province suffered 170,000 fatalities in the Asian tsunami of 2004, and since the war against Indonesian rule ended in 2005, having killed 15,000 people.

Voters cast their ballots for governor - the top post in the province - as well as 17 district heads and deputies. Irwandi Yusuf, 51, the incumbent governor who was elected in December 2006, is seeking a second five-year term.

At the village of Ulee Lheue on the outskirts of the capital Banda Aceh, voters cast their ballots at the Baiturrahim Mosque, the only structure in the fishing community that survived the tsunami.

Maulidin, 40, an ambulance attendant who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was among the first to cast his ballot.

"My vote is no secret. There was an earthquake at 5am a few months ago, and only a few people were on the beach looking out to sea (for a possible tsunami). Irwandi was one of them. I was touched that he really cared about the people's welfare," he said.

Only 415 people out of the community of 6,000 villagers survived the 2004 tsunami.

Aceh enjoys broad autonomy and is an anomaly in a country where most of the 240 million people practise a moderate form of Islam.

Alcohol is freely sold in the rest of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, but it is banned in Aceh. In some of the province's regions, women are forbidden from wearing tight trousers.

Gamblers and imbibers are publicly caned. Debate still churns in Aceh as to whether adulterers should continue to be publicly flogged or stoned to death.

"I want Islamic Sharia in place, but peace is most important," said Mariam, 45, a food vendor in Banda Aceh. "I had to stay indoors most times during the conflict. Now, I can sell food and walk around freely."

Mr Yusuf, who backs Sharia but has opposed stricter enforcement, is challenged by four other hopefuls.

Among them are Teungku Ahmad Tajuddin, 49, an Islamic schoolteacher who wants stricter Sharia but is not considered a serious contender, and Zaini Abdullah, 71, who is backed by the powerful Aceh Party and is a former rebel like Mr Yusuf.

"The election is clearly a competition between Irwandi ... and the Aceh Party," said the Jakarta-based analyst Jan Lepeltak.

"From our observations, the voting went smoothly, without any reports of violence and intimidation," said Abdul Salam Poroh, the chairman of the Aceh Independent Election Monitoring Committee.

Many Acehnese worry that the elections, which have been preceded by outbreaks of violence, could test a fragile peace following the decades-long insurgency.

Authorities say that a series of fatal shootings and at least 57 cases of intimidation were reported in the run-up to the poll, many involving supporters of Mr Yusuf and Mr Abdullah, raising fears of unrest in the aftermath of the vote.

More than three million residents were eligible to vote at 9,786 polling stations. Results are expected by Sunday, and candidates must garner more than 30 per cent of the vote to win outright.