Muzakir “Mualem” Manaf is positioning himself to become the next Governor of Aceh in 2024

In February, Indonesia will undergo the world’s largest single-day elections, with executive and legislative power up for grabs, nationally as well as subnationally. But many are concerned these contests will only expedite the slow, painful decline of Indonesian democracy. For nearly twenty years, Freedom House, V-Dem, and others have agreed the country’s democracy is eroding. Only the most optimistic observers believe the 2024 elections can stem the tide.

Polls show that Prabowo Subianto, backed by the incumbent president Joko Widodo’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is leading the way. Now in his seventies, Prabowo is a remenant of Soeharto’s New Order regime, having married into Soeharto’s family and been responsible for human rights abuses while heading army Special Forces. He has historically used his military background to project a strongman persona capable of preserving Indonesian sovereignty and unity.

Although the national media spotlight is cast on major population centres like Java, it can be useful to examine Indonesia’s periphery.  Aceh is hardly a typical Indonesian province, yet the political dynamics here provide important glimpses into the nature of Indonesian democracy.

One would expect political idealism to be strongest here, given the region’s long and violent struggle for independence. But in Aceh, like the rest of Indonesia, elections outcomes are still largely determined by transactional politics and shared spoils.

Post-conflict autonomy and democracy

In November 2023, the presidential campaign kicked off with another pair of candidates, Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud MD, holding events in Merauke (Papua) and Sabang (Aceh). It was a deliberate attempt to signal inclusion by embodying the long-standing expression ‘from Merauke to Sabang’ – a reference to Indonesia’s eastern and western frontiers.

It is no coincidence these frontiers are both autonomous regions of Indonesia – the two regions have historically been among the least receptive to Indonesian rule. While Papua was carved into six provinces in 2022 amidst simmering violence, the province of Aceh has enjoyed nearly twenty years of peace through a 2005 peace agreement and special territorial autonomy that ended a decades-long secessionist insurgency.

Territorial autonomy extends special powers to local governments representing distinct minorities, typically those with a strong local identity and a sense of being a minority nation.  Autonomy has given Aceh the ability to field local political parties in national elections (the only province with this right), the right to maintain distinctive Islamic laws, and entitles it to receive a special transfer of national funds beyond that allocated to other provinces.

But autonomy in Aceh has had mixed success. We can see autonomy as overcoming secessionist violence. Yet Aceh has hardly become a bastion of democracy itself, with former rebels dominating the provincial economy and sometimes using brute force against political rivals.

To avoid the tendency of autonomous regions focusing only on their own affairs, self-governance is typically paired with forms of shared governance.  Autonomous provinces may be afforded special status or powers in national politics and policy, balancing the centripetal tendencies of autonomy with centrifugal powers.

Rebels without a cause

The Aceh party (PA), comprised of rebels who once fought for Acehnese independence, has maintained surprisingly close connections with national political actors. In the leadup to the 2014 elections, PA made the shocking move to partner with the Prabowo campaign, placing former rebels in the same camp as one of their province’s former tormentors.

The PA-Prabowo partnership survived Prabowo’s 2014 loss and was renewed for the 2019 elections, when former rebel commander and recent Vice Governor Muzakir “Mualem” Manaf chaired the Prabowo campaign in Aceh.

Although Prabowo lost the rematch against Jokowi, he still captured over 85% of Aceh’s votes, close behind West Sumatra for Prabowo’s strongest provincial result.  This was partly due to the conservative Islamic province’s dislike of the more nationalist PDI-P party, which was backing Jokowi. Given Prabowo commanded forces that killed many Acehnese, this remarkable support is a testament to Prabowo’s close relationship with PA leaders.

It would be wrong to say that PA has dominated politics in Aceh. Its popular support falters in ethnically non-Acehnese districts in the province’s interior and southern coasts.  It has hovered at around 20-30% of provincial seats in a highly fragmented field of regional and national parties.  However, PA is still the single most powerful political party in the province and its associated networks dominate the economy. All Aceh’s post-conflict elected governors have been former rebels.

Aceh will also have its own provincial gubernatorial and legislative elections in November this year. One leading candidate for Aceh’s governor is Mualem, who is again chairing Prabowo’s Aceh campaign. Having previously been unsuccessful, PA and Prabowo have renewed their partnership, and there is a good chance that both will be victorious in 2024.

This echoes patterns in various countries of subnational strongmen supporting a national candidate, promising votes in exchange for support and access. Gibson refers to this as ‘boundary control’, in which national democracy is complemented by more autocratic, circumscribed subnational politics.

In 20024, however, there is a key difference – Indonesian politics, as a whole, is increasingly undemocratic.

Another difference relates to territorial autonomy. As part of its peace agreement, Aceh has enjoyed transfer payments from national coffers, revenue that represents a central component of PA’s power.   As PA announced its support for Prabowo, both parties reiterated their commitment to extending autonomy funds, which are set to expire in 2027.

This exemplifies how personal networks and transfer payments – forms of political dishonesty so usefully lumped together as ‘KKN’ (corruption, collusion and nepotism)– can serve as political centrifuge and help to maintain peace, even at the cost of democracy.

On to 2024!

Partai Aceh is hoping to win big in 2024. Although PA candidates failed to retake the governor’s post in 2017, the winner, Irwandi Yusuf, was arrested months later on bribery charges, and after his conviction, now commands diminished political influence.

Come February, PA will play up Acehnese nationalism against national parties (all the while allied with several Indonesian parties) in hopes of capturing a plurality of provincial seats and setting Mualem on the path to the governor’s office in the November Gubernatorial elections.

It is perhaps never wise to make political predictions. After all, in 2014, many expected Prabowo to defeat Jokowi, a relative outsider in. But with Prabowo and Jokowi now aligned, and subnational support in provinces such as Aceh, Prabowo may be poised to finally capture power.

The third time may indeed be a charm for Prabowo. It is deeply ironic that former rebels, the sworn enemies of the New Order, are now poised to play a major role in resurrecting it.

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