A former rebel leader swept to victory in landmark elections in Aceh Province one year after a peace deal ended a decades-long civil war that claimed 15,000 lives, pollsters said yesterday.
The Indonesian government said it would respect the outcome of the vote in the province, which was the worst hit region in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.
Election monitors said the vote was free and fair.
Irwandi Yusuf, a senior member of the rebel's political wing who was in jail on treason charges when the tsunami struck, received about 38 percent of the vote for governor, while the second-place candidate polled roughly 16 percent, according to local pollsters Jurdil Aceh and the Indonesian Survey Circle.
Both polls counted a representative sample of votes cast across the province and had a margin of error of 1 to 2 percentage points. Similar "quick counts" accurately forecast the result of national elections in Indonesia in 2004 and other local votes, but official results will not be released until Jan. 2.
The chief of the Indonesian military, which waged a brutal campaign against the rebels before the deal was signed in August last year, said the result was "not a victory for the former rebels, [but] a victory for the Acehnese people."
Idris Sulaiman, 45, who lives in the village of Naga Umbang in a former rebel stronghold where Indonesian army troops used to carry our frequent raids, was overjoyed when he heard news of Yusuf's apparent victory on the radio.
"Aceh must be a new country," he said, claiming the result as proof of public support for independence from Jakarta -- something the former rebels say is no longer their goal.
"We want freedom ... that would be the best way to prevent conflict in the future," he said.
Over 80 percent of some 2.6 million registered voters turned out on Monday, with long lines forming at more than 8,000 polling stations set up across the province. As well as the governor, they also choose town mayors and district chiefs in the first-ever direct elections in the province, which has seen almost constant warfare for 130 years.
The latest conflict began in 1976 and ended with the signing of the peace agreement in Helsinki, Finland, that has exceeded almost everyone's expectations, from the smooth handover of rebel weapons to the rapid withdrawal of Indonesian troops.
The yet-to-be confirmed victory of Yusuf was also a surprise. With eight candidates running for the top job, most analysts had predicted no one would receive the 25 percent of votes needed to win outright, forcing a run-off in March.
The second-place winner also had rebel ties, receiving the backing of the Free Aceh Movement's exiled political leadership, further underlining the strength of support in the province for the former insurgents.
"This is the dream of Acehnese people fulfilled, they want this change," Yusuf told reporters who mobbed him at a swanky four-star hotel that stands out amid the ruins of the tsunami-battered province.
"So many things have to be done," he said, vowing to push first and foremost for grass roots economic development. "It's going to be hard work."
If the result is upheld. it would show the level of distrust in Aceh of the central government and the established national political parties, which backed most of the other candidates.