Widodo or Prabowo? Indonesia's Aceh hedges its bets

In need of development funding from Jakarta, Aceh's largest political party hedges its bets on presidential vote.

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    A campaign banner supporting Joko Widodo, betten known as Jokowi, in a rice field on the outskirts of Banda Aceh [Raymondo/Al Jazeera]
    A campaign banner supporting Joko Widodo, betten known as Jokowi, in a rice field on the outskirts of Banda Aceh [Raymondo/Al Jazeera]

    Banda Aceh, Indonesia - In a rice field on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, the capital of the semi-autonomous Aceh province, several banners sway gently in the breeze. They spell out "Jokowi", the nickname of Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, who is running for re-election on Wednesday in a contest against his longtime rival, former General Prabowo Subianto.

    Residents of Banda Aceh said the show of support for Widodo in this religious conservative area was extraordinary. Despite winning the 2014 national polls, in Aceh, Widodo had garnered only 45 percent of the vote to his rival's 54 percent.

    Part of the reason for the new support was due to a split within Partai Aceh, the province's largest political party, according to locals and analysts. In the last vote, the party, which advocates for "Islamic nationalism in Aceh", put its weight firmly behind Prabowo, whose nationalist Gerindra Party is backed by conservative Islamist parties.

    But this time, Partai Aceh's highest ranking figures are divided; Muzakir Manaf, the party's chairman, has once again backed Prabowo, while Kamaruddin "Abu Razak" Abubakar, the party's secretary-general, has thrown his support behind Widodo.

    Former rebels in Indonesia's Aceh express grievance over peace deal (2:44)

    Most of Aceh's two million voters take their cue from Partai Aceh, launched a decade ago by former commanders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) which fought a decades-long battle against the Indonesian state for independence.

    The conflict ended when a devastating tsunami in 2004 brought the rival sides to the negotiating table.

    'Happy with whoever'

    Abu Razak, who is also a former deputy commander of GAM, said he switched his support to Widodo because he was impressed by the president's commitment to improving infrastructure across the whole of Indonesia.

    In Aceh, located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra island, this included three new hydropower dams and a new road connecting the capital on the western coast to the town of Sigli on the east, said Abu Razak, who described Widodo's governance over the past five years as "simple and clean".

    The split within Partai Aceh would not confuse voters in the area, he said.

    "The most important thing is that we are legal and peaceful, and that we put Partai Aceh first," Abu Razak said.

    He added: "Whoever is elected as president will bring with them their own infrastructure projects. They could also choose to stop the ones that exist now at any time. We don't want these projects to stop, so we will be happy with whoever wins."

    Partai Aceh secretary-general, Kamaruddin 'Abu Razak' Abubakar, speaking at a campaign rally in support of incumbent president Joko Widodo [Kamaruddin Abubakar/Al Jazeera]

    Despite Aceh's semi-autonomous status, it relies on the central government in the capital, Jakarta, for infrastructure funding.

    Muhajir, a former journalist who has been campaigning for Partai Aceh, said the split in the party's upper echelons reflected "its pragmatic approach to politics".

    "Whichever candidate wins, Partai Aceh will have a foot in the door in Jakarta," said Muhajir, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name.

    Failed politicians 

    But there were some who felt Aceh's politicians' attempt to curry favour with Jakarta puts at risk justice for human rights abuses committed by Indonesia's military during the three-decade Aceh conflict.

    Between 12,000 and 15,000 people died in the fighting between the army and GAM fighters. The peace deal, signed in 2005, gave Aceh partial autonomy and allowed the province to establish its own political parties and government. As a result, many former GAM fighters became politicians.

    "Politics in Aceh has moved on [from the time of the civil conflict] but that's easy if you're a member of the political elite. For the victims, however, it's much more difficult for them to move on without closure," said Evi Zain, deputy head of a truth and reconciliation commission set up as part of the peace process.

    Evi Zain, deputy head of the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation in the Indonesian province of Aceh [Raymondo/Al Jazeera]

    Politicians in Aceh were no longer interested in seeking justice from Jakarta for past crimes or reparations for victims, said Zain.

    Accusing the government of Aceh of failing to act on the commission's reports, she also said the provincial administration did not provide it with the adequate funds and staff to carry out its task of documenting past rights abuses.

    Muhajir said the region's politicians have failed to live up to the expectations of voters in Ache.

    "Just like other regions in Indonesia, corruption is ingrained right down to the bone," he said.

    Two weeks ago, Irwandi Yusuf, the province's former governor and a respected GAM leader, was sentenced to seven years in jail for accepting bribes to award infrastructure projects to companies linked to one of his district chiefs. He was also found guilty of receiving bribes from his campaign team in return for awarding lucrative contracts to procure goods and infrastructure materials.

    "People in Aceh are disappointed that former GAM combatants haven't succeeded in making Aceh truly prosperous. They took power [at the time of the peace agreement] and then tried to take power over the economy," said Muhajir.

    "But they didn't know how to adapt to democracy."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News