This paper looks at how political power in Aceh is moving away from the old Free Aceh Movement government-in-exile.


Political dynamics within the top ranks of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) suggest that a generational transfer of power is underway. The old diaspora elite, led from abroad by Malik Mahmud until the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement, is losing influence. Authority derived from long-term service to the movement and closeness to its late founder, Hasan Tiro, is being replaced by authority derived from control of local resources and political institutions.

By this measure, Muzakir Manaf, the former GAM guerrilla commander, who is simultaneously vice-governor, CEO of a business conglomerate and head of the Aceh Party (Partai Aceh), GAM’s main political vehicle for winning local elections, is the most powerful person in Aceh. His willingness to defer to his old political superiors in the struggle appears to be coming to an end. This is particularly apparent in his ongoing rift with Gov. Zaini Abdullah.

Distancing itself from the old guard could weaken Partai Aceh in several ways. Its claim to be the party of peace because of its role in the Helsinki pact could lose force with the electorate. There would be fewer positives to balance against its rent-seeking and sometimes thuggish tactics. It could be more prone to splinters, especially as ex-combatants resentful of Muzakir’s authoritarian tendencies opt out or are expelled from the party. It could have less access to top officials in Jakarta, where the main link was between Jusuf Kalla and Malik as a result of the peace process.

Partai Aceh strategists close to Muzakir, however, are trying to strengthen the political base through two methods. One is rejuvenation, relying less on ex-combatants for political office since as a group they have performed poorly, and more on younger, better educated cadres. The second is reaching out to conservative clerics by promising to strengthen the role of Islam in everyday life. This may be at odds with the largely secular outlook of many top GAM leaders but it is seen as important to shoring up GAM’s grassroots constituency.

Three other factors could affect how the party evolves. One is the political ambition of former governor Irwandi Yusuf, newly reconciled with Muzakir after a bitter electoral fight in 2012. He sees a political partnership with Muzakir under the Partai Aceh banner as the best way of uniting GAM and ensuring that Jakarta delivers on the unfulfilled promises of Helsinki. Muzakir supporters are not so sure.

The second is whether national parties continue to eat into Partai Aceh’s strength, as they did in the 2014 election. The new party Nasdem in particular has some popular elected legislators with ambitions to run for executive office; they might be able to capture some district and municipal posts in 2017. Civil society activists are also interested in trying to groom their own cadres to enter the political arena.

The third is how Jakarta reacts. Throughout the Yudhoyono administration, the president was personally engaged in trying to keep Partai Aceh and the old guard on side in the interest of strengthening the peace. President Jokowi is likely to be less focused on Aceh, and his conservative security advisers are more likely to favour a weak and divided GAM than one united behind a new generation of leaders.

The 2017 election for governor and district heads will be a chance to assess Partai Aceh’s ability to survive the founding generation. Its candidate for governor will likely win. The question is whether the percentage of victory will be more or less than in 2012, when the ticket of Zaini-Muzakir won 54 per cent of the vote after a campaign marked by violence and intimidation. A reconciliation ticket with Muzakir and Irwandi could send those numbers soaring, but few think it will transpire, especially since both want to be governor. A less than 50 per cent performance, even if still secures the governorship, could be a harbinger of a further decline for the party in the 2019 legislative elections.

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