Indonesia’s only province ruled by Shariah laws elects its powerful governor tomorrow in polls watched by Muslims pushing for a nationwide Islamic government.
The elections in Aceh are the second since the province suffered 170,000 fatalities in the Asian tsunami of 2004 and since a 30-year war against Indonesian rule ended in 2005, having claimed 15,000 lives.
The restive region, on the western edge of the scattered Indonesian archipelago, now enjoys autonomy and it remains an anomaly in a country where most of the 240 million people practice 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 to wear tight trousers.
Gamblers and imbibers are publicly caned. Debate still churns in Aceh over whether adulterers should continue to be publicly flogged or stoned to death.
Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf, who was elected in December 2006 and is seeking a second five-year term, backs Shariah, but has remained a bulwark against stricter enforcement, such as the harshest punishment for adultery.
No law can pass unless the provincial parliament — dominated by Yusuf’s opponents — and the governor are both in agreement.
The 51-year-old’s main challenger is Teungku Ahmad Tajuddin, an Islamic schoolteacher who is confident of victory.
The 49-year-old cleric will not say outright whether he backs the stoning laws, but condemns Yusuf for rejecting the stiffer Shariah by-laws.
“I don’t reject criminal by-laws, because clerics have agreed to them,” he said.
“I want Aceh as a model of Islamic Shariah for Indonesia and Southeast Asia,” Tajuddin added.
Sporadic violence — including arson attacks and at least six fatal shootings — have been reported in the run-up to the polls, which have been repeatedly delayed since October last year. However, the province has been getting back on its feet after the civil war and the tsunami.
In the capital, Banda Aceh, new concrete homes, hotels, schools and mosques cover the flood devastation, and new roads have been built wider to allow a quicker exit should another disaster strike. A boat that landed on top of a house — an image that became a worldwide emblem of the tsunami — has been turned into a tourist attraction.
Across the capital Yusuf’s orange campaign posters promise “continued peace and development,” while Tajuddin’s green banners proclaim his vow of “making Islamic Shariah part of Aceh.”
Acehnese agree that life is getting better. Almost no one speaks against Shariah.
“Foreigners often think that people in Aceh live in the dark ages and are murderers,” said Nurmi, a textiles salesman who goes by one name.
“For me, caning is fine, but stoning is not acceptable or appropriate in this day and age,” she said.
For Indonesia’s Islamic militants who insist on Shariah rule nationwide, Aceh shines as an example and it has been a magnet for militants.
“Strict enforcement of Shariah laws is not perfect in Aceh, but it’s a good start and all other provinces must follow,” said Farihin Ibnu Ahmad, an Islamist who has done two jail stints on terrorism convictions.
However, despite executions and arrests — and police shootings of five alleged terrorists as recently as last month in Bali — Muslim militants still remain active.