Indonesia’s only province ruled by Islamic Shariah laws was electing its powerful governor yesterday, in polls that will test a fragile peace following a 30-year separatist war.
The elections in Aceh are 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 claimed 15,000 lives.
Voters are electing the governor — the top post in the province — as well as 17 district heads and deputies. Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf, the 51-year-old 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, who like many -Indonesians goes by one name, is a 40-year-old -ambulance attendant who was among the first to cast his ballot after voting began a little after 8am.
“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,” Maulidin said.
Only 415 people out of the community of 6,000 villagers survived the tsunami.
Aceh enjoys broad autonomy and is 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, 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 over whether adulterers should continue to be publicly flogged, or stoned to death.
“I want a good Muslim leader who upholds Islamic Shariah in Aceh, but most importantly he must ensure peace and economic progress. We have suffered long during the conflict, and it is not a time to fight anymore,” said Nuzurul, a 35-year-old driver voting in the capital.
Yusuf, who backs Shariah, but has opposed stricter enforcement, is challenged by four other hopefuls.
Among them are Teungku Ahmad Tajuddin, a 49-year-old Islamic schoolteacher who wants stricter Shariah laws, but is not considered a serious contender, and 71-year-old Zaini Abdullah, who is backed by the powerful Aceh Party and is a former rebel like Yusuf.
Many Acehnese worry that the elections, which have been preceded by outbreaks of violence, could test a fragile peace that has prevailed since the decades-long insurgency ended.
Much of the election tension has centered around Yusuf, who like many other politicians had been a rebel with the now-defunct separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), and his feud with the Aceh Party which was created by GAM in 2008.
Divisions among the former GAM leaders have grown since the 2005 agreement with Indonesia that ended the war, with Yusuf saying he survived an assassination attempt last month.
The Aceh Party, which dominates the regional parliament, has been bitterly opposed to Yusuf for running as an independent.
Results are expected by Sunday and candidates must garner more than 30 percent of the vote for an outright win.