Indonesia’s Aceh province on Tuesday elected a former rebel as governor, who vowed to carry out a “purer” form of sharia in what is the country’s only region to practise the Islamic law.
The election was seen as a test of Aceh’s fragile peace following a 30-year separatist war that ended in 2005, and a devastating tsunami that destroyed entire towns in 2004.
The powerful Aceh Party’s Zaini Abdullah – the former “foreign minister” of the defunct rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM) – beat four other candidates in a landslide victory in the largely autonomous province.
“The candidate pair Zaini Abdullah and Muzakir Manaf… will serve as governor and vice governor for the period 2012 to 2017,” Aceh electoral commission head Abdul Salam Poroh announced.
Abdullah won with 1.3 million votes, more than 55 percent, while his main rival, incumbent and independent Irwandi Yusuf, came second with around 30 percent.
Abdullah is credited as a key ne gotiator in a 2005 agreement with the central government that granted special autonomy to Aceh, which sits on the northern tip of Sumatra island.
The Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding, in which the rebels agreed to lay down arms, put an end to 30 years of bloody unrest in which more than 15,000 people died, and gave Aceh the freedom to carry out sharia laws.
Abdullah, 71, said he was “deeply moved” to have been elected, vowing to eradicate corruption in government, and boost the local the economy by developing the agriculture and fisheries industries.
He also said he would seek to pass a new bill to carry out “purer” sharia laws, which are not in force anywhere else in Indonesia, where the vast majority practise moderate Islam.
“We will meet with ulema and discuss a new sharia bill that can be accepted by all Acehnese,” he said.
“Sharia is about how to educate our youths about what is right and wrong.”
The vote on April 9 came after months of political manoeuvring by Abdullah and his party, which tried to see independents like Yusuf disqualified from running.
Yusuf’s campaign team accused the Aceh Party of intimidating voters to back Abdullah by using threats of violence and kidnappings, allegations the party denies.
Around 200 Aceh Party supporters at parliament house cheered upon hearing of Abdulla’s victory, yelling “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greatest”) and “Long live Zaini Abdullah”.
Abdullah, a trained physician when GAM was formed in 1976, quickly rose to the top ranks of the rebel group while working as a doctor.
But the central government eventually named him a wanted man and he fled to the jungle, according to the Aceh Party, moving to Sweden in 1981, where he lived in exile for 24 years.
Abdullah’s win boosts the power of the Aceh Party, which already dominates parliament.
Sporadic politically-motivated violence continues in the restive province, with more than a dozen fatal shootings in the six months ahead of the election.
The 2005 agreement between Jakarta and the rebels was also made in the spirit of rebuilding Aceh after the devastating tsunami in 2004 killed 170,000 in Indonesia, the vast majority in Aceh. -By Nurdin Hasan