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.
In order for democracy to really take hold in the wake of the recent Arab Revolutions, the people of the region should be careful not to conform to Western ideas of democracy and instead develop their own model, one relevant to their own cultural norms and in tune with their own rich history of democracy.
The Arab Revolutions themselves give us insight into what this model might look like. Indeed, recent events are to be admired for the extent to which divergent voices have been heard, legitimate grievances have been aired, and women and minorities have been involved.
They are also to be admired because a balance has often been struck between the pragmatic and the ideal, between the secular and the religious, between the desire not just to oust failing tyrants but to replace them with something new, something that could respond to the varying needs of the citizens.
Although Australia has repeatedly expressed its solidarity and support with the Arab uprisings and has called for a no-fly zone to be imposed on Libya, what exactly Australia should learn from the popular democratic movements sweeping across the region has yet to be considered.
The dramatic sequence of pro-democracy movements that are emerging in the Middle East and North Africa serve as a unique opportunity for Australian politicians and policy-makers to learn three key lessons which have very specific consequences for Australia’s foreign policy, its trade and security, and its relationships with the Arab world.
The tumultuous changes affecting the Middle-East have been widely described as representing ‘people power’ and claimed by many Western political leaders, including Australia’s, as representing aspirations for democracy. The uprisings from Morocco across to the Arabian Peninsula are, to be sure, a reflection of a popular desire for political change, but their chances of democratic outcomes is much less certain.
There is a widespread view in the West that, in its clash with radical Islamism, that Islam and democracy are fundamentally irreconcilable. The view holds that, even in the few cases where an avowedly Islamic country can hold elections, these will reflect tribal loyalties and vote-rigging rather than open and competitive politics.
There are considerable grounds for such pessimism, given the corruption of the electoral process in Afghanistan and Iran and the religious factionalism of Iraq. Even Pakistan and Bangladesh, at best, do little more than stumble between corruption and military coups.
The decision by US President Barak Obama to send a further 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, to be backed by around 10,000 extra personnel from allied countries, is his attempt to deliver a knock-out blow to the Taliban and the establish order and stability in that historically fractious state. But will this strategy work?
Just two weeks before it recently left office, the outgoing legislature of Aceh, the DPRA, passed the Qanun Jinayat (Islamic Criminal Bylaw). International reporting on this move portrayed the legislation as allowing – or even requiring – the ‘stoning to death’ of adulterers and the torture of women. The international image of Indonesia generally and Aceh in particular suffered greatly, and unfairly.
It is widely assumed that the out-going DPRA passed this law in an unfortunate and misguided attempt to cause problems for the in-coming DPRA. But the real issue concerns the extent to which democratic principles are finding a home in Aceh, and in Indonesia.