About one month ago I received a phone call out of the blue on my personal cell phone from a U.S. Embassy staff who works in their security department. Apparently there are few enough Americans in town that I’m a good enough on-the-ground-source for the Embassy to call and ask whether or not I feel safe living in Aceh. He told me he got my phone number from a friend of mine who is teaching English in Banda Aceh through an official university program, so all their people are registered with the embassy (I have been negligent to register myself through their website – handy for doing things like expediting passport renewals for a lost or stolen one). He had asked her if she knew any other Americans to contact. It is my first reaction to be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls from strange men even when they say they work for the Embassy. However, his dispassionate Midwestern accent coupled with his vague and general agenda convinced me that yes, indeed this guy does work for the State Department.

Photo: Matt Styslinger. Campaign fliers and posters like these in addition to party flags are everywhere. The numbers and photos are for illiterate voters.

The reason he was calling is something I’ve delayed writing on, because I didn’t want to raise undue worry. However, it’s time now. Monday is the regional elections. For about a month and a half starting last December, there were flare ups of election-related violence, although the Jakarta Post wrote otherwise stating that the violence was more ethnic-conflict than election. About 10 people total were killed in discreet drive-by shooting events.

Antara Photo/Rahmad

The electricity and phone were down in December when people cut down the giant electricity pylons. There were a lot of rumors flying around that Javanese migrants working here were targeted specifically to make it seem like it was an ethnic conflict. People set up neighborhood watch shifts overnight. All staff were required to leave the office no later than 5:30pm. Kelly and I were instructed not to go about after dark. However, we could stay later at the office than others, but were not allowed to walk the five minutes to the guest house without an office security guard shuttling us back on a motorcycle.  Our office sign (which has a flaming catholic cross as a logo on it being Caritas and all) was removed from the top of our street. We received the phone numbers and security updates from the UN Department of Security and Safety (UNDSS); when we travel outside of Banda Aceh we call their radio room to let them know we’ll be on the road and whether there has been any issues recently we should know about. It was tense to say the least, and it was uncertain whether it would continue or not. Although there has continued to be small amounts of violence, it has been so blatantly targeted now at political candidates, that the general public is no longer concerned.

Back in 2006, when the Gerekan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) separatist group and the Government of Indonesia (GoI), which I’ve written a bit about before, signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to end the 30-year conflict, they agreed that unlike the rest of Indonesia, Aceh will allow independent candidates – candidates who are not affiliated with a political party – to run for office. Since then, the rest of Indonesia has caught up on allowing independents to run. However, it turned out not to be necessary, as the person who won as Governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, is an ex-GAM member and a member of Partai Aceh (PA), the largest political party in Aceh.

Photo: Matt Styslinger. Irwandi and running mate. The hat's are traditional Acehnese hats.

GAM formed a group called KPDA, which provides large support for PA. The trouble started when Irwandi decided to run for re-election as an independent candidate, which angered PA. This has caused a split also within KPDA, where some ex-combatants moved to support Irwandi and others to support PA. It is purported that the KPDA members who went with PA are more prone to violence.

More drama came when PA decided that they were not going to register for the election coming up in February (which was also a delay; if I remember correctly the elections were originally to be held November 2011), and then were just shocked when they weren’t allowed to put a candidate on the ballot. They sued the Election Commission (KPU) over the grounds that KPU must delay the election until April in order to allow PA time to complete a late registration. In the end, as you can see, PA won and the election is on 9 April 2012. They also hold that the MoU allowed for independent candidates to run only that one time (although I could not find the language stating that), so it is unconstitutional for Irwandi to run as an independent even though the Constitutional Court of Indonesia stated otherwise. I’m painting a pretty…mmm…unkind picture of PA, whose candidate running for Governor is

Photo: Caritas Czech Aceh Selatan. Zaini and running mate - Partai Aceh.

Zaini Abdullah, though Irwandi does not smell like a bunch of roses either.

In any case, an election monitor is coming from the Czech Embassy in Jakarta – apparently one of the few embassies sending a monitor; we are taking him around to monitor the polling places. So, we (us here at Czech Caritas) are not monitors, but “watchers.” A few of us (which I am lucky enough to be included) can go with him to watch what happens on Monday. We aren’t allowed to go into the voting centers, but apparently they are all pretty much open air places, so it’ll be relatively easy to see what’s going on.