In a short couple of months, Aceh will again go to the polls to elect a governor and vice-governor, bupatis and local representatives. The election will mark a consolidation of the democratic process in Aceh, introduced as a result of the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement.
Even though the campaign period for the elections has not yet formally started, there is great interest in who will run, what they stand for and what their chances of success might be. It is healthy that people take an active interest in the political life of their community, as the political process determines how the people of the community are to live, within the constraints imposed by their circumstances.
That the political environment in Aceh has remained more or less peaceful since 2005 represents a victory for the idea of democratic, representative government. The electoral process itself represents a victory for accountability, which is the opposite of the imposed rule that Aceh once experienced.
Aceh has also experienced many of the problems that other post-conflict societies experience. But, on balance, Aceh is a far happier, more stable and fair place than it was. Life, for most Acehnese, is better.
One of the problems of post-conflict society is that expectations run very high. Many people believe that, with peace, will come unlimited prosperity. Of course, this is not true and it is not realistic. What comes with peace is the hard struggle to rebuild one’s society, in Aceh as well as elsewhere. Peace only creates that possibility. So there is very often a sense of disappointment, and some people in Aceh have expressed such disappointment.
The two biggest disappointments are that the 2005 MOU that ended the war has not been fully honoured by Jakarta. The second disappointment is, for some, that independence was not achieved.
On the question of independence, there are a number of ways to address this issue, but the main one is to ask oneself what the purpose of independence was supposed to be. If the answer is to improve the lives of ordinary Acehnese people, the next question is whether there could be another way to do that. The alternative was, almost certainly, more death, more destruction and more suffering, without any prospect of gaining the hoped for victory.
It is also important to remember that the long suffering of the Acehnese people was compounded by the 2004 tsunami. It was time, then, to end the suffering.
Fortunately, those people who are disappointed about not achieving independence are few and their voices are, these days, at the political margins. But if the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding was the answer, then what of it not being fully honoured?
There is no easy answer to this, except to say that politics is about the art of the possible. Compromise is often distasteful, but it is also often necessary. When the Law on the Governing of Aceh was introduced, it contained a number of issues which did not comply with the MOU. It was, however, a genuine attempt by Jakarta law makers to put into legal terms what the MOU intended. It was not perfect, but it provided a foundation. It also allows the opportunity to continue to press for all of the provisions of the MOU, even though these may not all be achieved. The question in this has not been about Aceh’s political leadership, but about what has been possible.
In terms of what has been possible, the last five years have seen a remarkable transformation of Aceh. Aceh is no longer a place of fear, but one of building lives. The richness of Acehnese culture is again available for its people to develop and enjoy.
In concrete political terms, Aceh has seen significant developments in its education program, facilitated by the autonomy that it now enjoys. In particular, Aceh has invested heavily in its own future by sending its brightest young scholars overseas for the best education available. When they return, they will help build Aceh as a strong, knowledgeable and prosperous place. This is the same policy as conducted by the most enlightened and successful countries.
Aceh has also led the way in health care, with investments in clinics and hospitals and, most importantly, ensuring that health care is freely available. This is a remarkable step for any government and is a world first for a society that is still developing its economy.
The moratorium on logging has also recognised that the richness of Aceh lies not just in its people but in its habitat and wildlife. In each of these areas, Aceh now stands among the first in the world, with other political leaders looking on in envy.
The next issues for Aceh to address will be how to transit from an economy largely reliant on gas receipts to one that thrives, as it once did, from commerce. This will require broadening Aceh’s economic base, which will in turn come back to the question of the education of its people. Investing in human capital is the smartest step Aceh could have taken, and it did. This augurs well for the future.
Of course, Aceh’s future will depend very much on who steers it through the next five years, to ensure that the gains of the past five years are locked in. Among the candidates for the various positions, there are some who have done a good job and should be encouraged to stay, some who have been less successful and should be held to account by the voters, and some who may choose not to continue for their own reasons.
There are also many who would like to lead Aceh for the next five years who have not yet been tested or who have otherwise not shown the necessary leadership skills.
Some have suggested that the negotiating team that secured the MOU are among those well placed to lead. The truth is, however, that the negotiating team was fragmented before the MOU was even signed and has since divided into a number of different political perspectives. There is necessary link between those who were involved in the 2005 MOU process, or in what way, and who is now best equipped to lead Aceh.
In part, the future of Aceh will depend on the outcome of a political competition. This is a healthy process for an open society, to peacefully discuss and debate ideas. There is no room in a democracy for violence, from anyone. Escaping from the habit of violence is one of the most difficult things to do in a post-conflict society. But it must be done if that society is to have any chance of future success. Similarly, no-one has a greater claim to legitimacy, based on past political allegiances, than anyone else. Certain organisations carried the torch of freedom for many years, but they now no longer exist. Those who were part of those organisations are now spread across a wide field. As a consequence, no-one can claim the mantle of representing the Acehnese people more than anyone else.
There are, of course, loyalties to parties and personality and these remain important. But more important are the ideas that they stand for. The first consideration should always be policies, then parties and, last of all, personalities. It should be hoped that the individuals who win are those with the best ideas for Aceh’s future.
The people of Aceh will have a great opportunity over the coming months to consider what their political candidates can offer them, not in terms of cash hand-outs or t-shirts, but clear plans for Aceh’s prosperous and secure future. All friends of Aceh hope they use this time to carefully scrutinise the candidate’s policy positions and, when the day comes, to decide on that basis of who they believe has the best, most realistic plan for Aceh’s future.