BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Indonesia’s only province ruled by Islamic sharia laws elects its powerful governor on Monday, April 9, 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 across the region will elect the governor — the top post in the province — as well as 17 district heads and deputies.
Aceh, 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 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 over whether adulterers should continue to be publicly flogged, or stoned to death.
Irwandi Yusuf, 51, who was elected governor in December 2006 and is seeking a second five-year term, backs sharia but has opposed stricter enforcement, such as the harshest punishment for adultery.
Among his 4 challengers are Teungku Ahmad Tajuddin, a 49-year-old Islamic schoolteacher who wants stricter sharia 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 freedom fighter like Yusuf himself.
“The election is clearly a competition between Irwandi… and the Aceh Party,” said Jakarta-based analyst Jan Lepeltak.
Many Acehnese worry that the elections, which have been preceded by outbreaks of violence, could test a fragile peace that has prevailed since a deal ended the insurgency.
Much of the election tension has centred 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.
A series of fatal shootings since December “have raised concerns that more violence between these two camps will follow,” the International Crisis Group said in a report.
Aceh elections supervisory committee chairman Nyak Arief Fadhillah Syah said 57 cases of violence and intimidation had been reported so far, many involving supporters of Yusuf and Abdullah, whose party is comprised of former GAM rebels.
“The potential for corruption is enormous, because of the possibility of terror and intimidation… to ensure victory for a particular candidate,” he said.
Lepeltak said he believed the election “is a test for the maturity of the political process in Aceh.”
More than three million residents are eligible to vote at 9,786 polling stations that will open from 8am (0100 GMT) to 2pm (0700 GMT). For an outright win, candidates must garner more than 30 percent of the vote. – Agence France-Presse