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Mood Upbeat Ahead of Historic Vote in Aceh


The mood is upbeat in Indonesia's Aceh province, the day before citizens of the region, devastated by decades of war and the 2004 tsunami, go to the polls to elect their own top officials for the first time ever. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins reports from the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

Forty-year-old Nazir has seen his share of misery. He lost his brother during the 29-year conflict between the government and the Free Aceh Movement, and his wife and two of his three children were killed when the tsunami slammed into Aceh in 2004, claiming the lives of more than 160,000 people here.

But Nazir, sitting in a traditional coffee shop in this still only partially rebuilt city, says he is hopeful. The Indonesian government and the rebels known as the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, signed a peace treaty in August 2005. Their aim was to concentrate on developing the region, instead of using it as a battlefield.

He says he thinks things will run peacefully on election day, and hopes the next governor, whoever he is, will help rebuild the economy of Aceh.

Many here echo Nazir's sentiments. Concerns during the civil conflict, before the tsunami hit, centered on personal safety and security. Now that peace has come to this region rich in oil and gas, most people here want to see the benefits that peace is supposed to bring: economic development, and prosperity.

Most people say they expect Monday's vote to run as smoothly and peacefully as the campaign that has just ended. There are eight men running for governor, each paired with a candidate for deputy governor, along with candidates for mayor and regent.

Bakhtiar Abdullah, a spokesman for GAM, which was fighting for an independent state in Aceh, reflects the perception here that GAM has truly put away the tools of rebellion, and has opted for mainstream democracy instead.

"GAM views these elections as a historic moment because this is the first time that the democratic direct election by the people for the governor and also for all other head of districts and mayor has ever been held in Aceh in a peaceful environment," he said. "And GAM lauds this historic event and supports the implementation of this democratic fiesta."

The elections have thrown a spotlight on divisions within GAM, pitting those who stayed in Aceh to fight the government against those who fled to Sweden, where GAM maintained a government-in-exile throughout the conflict.

Two of the eight pairs running for governor and deputy governor are rival GAM members, pitted against each other instead of the Indonesian military. Both the targets, and the method of combat, have changed.

To win on Monday, one candidate must get at least 25 percent of the vote. If no one reaches that level, there will be a run-off between the two top contenders within 60 days.

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