- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — A former rebel leader appeared headed to easy victory yesterday in the first elections in Aceh province since the government and the separatists signed a peace deal in the tsunami-ravaged region last year, according to a sampling of votes tallied by two respected local pollsters.

Irwandi Yusuf, who was in jail for treason when the tsunami crashed into the province in 2004, had about 38 percent of the vote for governor, while the second-place candidate had between 15 percent and 17 percent, according to respected local pollsters Jurdil Aceh and the Indonesian Survey Circle.

The statistical surveys of vote returns, known as “quick counts,” have a margin of error of 1 to 2 percentage points.

Official results will not be released until Jan. 2, although similar polls accurately forecast the result of national elections in Indonesia in 2004 and in scores of other countries in the world.

If the result is upheld, it would represent a stunning victory for the former rebel movement, which formally abandoned its demand for independence and disbanded its armed wing as part of the 2005 peace agreement.

It would also show the level of distrust in Aceh for the central government and the established national political parties, which backed most of the other candidates in the race.

“This is the dream of Acehnese people fulfilled, they want this change,” Mr. Yusuf told reporters at a four-star hotel that stands out amid the ruins of the tsunami-battered province.

“Aceh in the future will be a wild horse, so many things have to be done,” he said, promising to push first for economic development.

The apparent second-place candidate was also backed by the former rebel’s exiled political leadership and his running mate was an ex-fighter, further underling popular support in the province for the former insurgents.

“It’s a vote for change. … Now we’re going to have to see how somebody who has been associated with the guerrilla movement actually governs,” said Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization.

The 2004 tsunami killed an estimated 167,000 people in Aceh and helped usher an end to the fighting, with both sides saying they did not want to add to the suffering.

The oil-and-gas-rich province of 4.3 million people on Sumatra island’s northern tip has known almost nothing but war for 130 years, with its residents fighting would-be Dutch colonists, the Japanese and finally Indonesia’s central government.

The latest conflict began in 1976 and claimed about 15,000 lives, many of them civilians, and ended with the signing of the peace agreement in Helsinki that has exceeded almost everyone’s exceptions.

Under the terms of the deal, the military pulled half its 50,000-strong garrison from Aceh and promised the region control over 70 percent of its mineral wealth. It also gave the former rebels the right to take part in politics.

There were no reports of poll violence, but a small bomb went off at a partially built school in northern Aceh at dawn, causing no injuries and little damage, police said.

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