12/11/2006, 00.00
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First elections in Aceh

by Mathias Hariyadi
Thirty years and one tsunami later, the Indonesian province chooses its own local government. No major incidents are reported as more than 2.6 million voters go to the polls.

Banda Aceh (AsiaNews) – For the first time in 30 years of separatist guerrilla warfare and two years after a devastating tsunami, the Indonesian province of Aceh has gone to the polls to elect its local government. The historic election marks the high point in a peace process that began in August 2005 with a peace agreement signed by the central government and Aceh rebels brokered by Finland.

Out of an overall population of about 4 million, more than 2.6 million could vote and, according to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, two thirds of them did cast their ballot for the next governor, deputy governor, district chiefs and mayors.

Leaders from the Free Aceh Movement or GAM, the organisation that the led the insurgency from 1976 till 2005 but which is not running as party, are also running for office as independent. This is an historic step since candidates were hitherto allowed to run only as part of party tickets.

Polling stations have just closed and vote counting has begun under the watchful eye of foreign observers, including many Americans and about 80 from the European Union.

More than 10,000 police officers were deployed to maintain order, but at a press conference this morning, President Susilo thanked everybody for the peaceful atmosphere in which elections took place in Aceh.

The day was marred by only two small incidents: two small explosive devices went off in the north and east of the province without causing any major damages.

Analysts feared clashes between factions within the former rebel group itself with those loyal to the movement’s exiled leadership lining up against those loyal to local commanders.

In Aceh, the province where Islam is taking on much more radical traits than the rest of the country, the war saw rebel forces fight the special units of the Indonesian army. Some 15,000 people died during the conflict, mostly civilians.

The devastating impact of the tsunami and the need to bring aid into the war-torn province opened the door to the peace agreement until then still unimaginable.

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