General elections in Indonesia are held every five years, the most recent one being in April 2009. But this time round, the elections in Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra were very different. For the first time, the Acehnese voted in free elections after almost three decades of conflict. The former rebel movement GAM had transformed itself into a political party and fielded its own candidates in the local elections.
Aceh is the only Indonesian province where people have been allowed to set up their own parties. Six local parties have been officially recognized: Partai Aceh (PA, the Aceh Party); Partai Suara Independen Rakyat Aceh (PSIRA, the Aceh People’s Independent Voice Party); Partai Rakyat Aceh (PRA, the Aceh People’s Party); Partai Daulat Aceh (PDA, the Sovereign Aceh Party); Partai Bersatu Aceh (PBA, the United Aceh Party); and Partai Aceh Aman dan Sejahtera (PAAS, the Safe and Prosperous Aceh Party).
The participation of local parties was a very significant breakthrough, a minor revolution in the context of Indonesia’s unitary political system. Successive rebellions since the birth of the Indonesian Republic in 1945, not only in the periphery but also in the heartland of Java, led to the increasing adoption a highly centralized system. Although in 1949 Indonesia became a federal state, that lasted for little more than a year. A series of rebellions, including one in Aceh, led in 1958 to a consensus among the ruling elite in Jakarta that a strong unitary system was the only option.
The rebellion that erupted in Aceh in 1976 under the leadership of GAM, the Aceh Freedom Movement, enjoyed a strong mass base of support. After the authoritarian ruler Suharto was forced to stand down in May 1998, political events in Aceh made great strides forward. While the military tried to crush the independence movement, decision-makers in Jakarta realized that a political solution was the only way to proceed. Aceh underwent several stages in a peace process, with dialogue the main thread.
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