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Large Turn Out for Indonesia's Aceh Elections


Polls have closed in Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged province of Aceh after a landmark vote for a provincial government. Officials estimate the majority of the 2.6 million people eligible to vote, did so. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins reports from the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

The elections in Indonesia's Aceh province are being hailed as a landmark in the peace process. This began in August 2005 when the government and separatist rebels from the Free Aceh Movement agreed to end nearly 29 years of war, which had claimed more than 15,000 lives.

Most voters turned up early, thrilled to have the chance for a say in how their province will be run.

Local election monitor Herfianza cast his ballot as soon as the polls opened early Monday morning.

He says he is excited about this election and hopeful for the future of Aceh. He says whoever becomes the next governor must make growth of the local economy a priority.

Herfianza echoed sentiments expressed throughout Aceh. With around half the population unemployed, most people say they want the new local government to concentrate on recovery.

The oil and gas rich province of Aceh, located on the northern tip of Sumatra island, is still reeling from the destruction wrought by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It killed more than 160-thousand people and destroyed most of the infrastructure.

The peace deal between the government and the Free Aceh Movement has given hope to many Acehnese that the long years of the bloody conflict are finally behind them.

As part of that deal the rebels agreed to drop their demands for independence in exchange for wide-ranging autonomy, 70 percent of the revenues from the region's rich natural resources, and the opportunity to participate in these elections.

Paul Rowland, resident representative of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-funded organization that promotes democracy, says the peaceful elections showed how eager people are for the chance to vote.

"The polling stations that I visited had significant participation by very enthusiastic voters," said Rowland. "People came up to me as an international observer and said where are you from and we are just so excited about this election because it has been 30 years and now we get to choose our governor and people are extremely excited about this."

Among those running for the top posts of governor and deputy governor are a former military commander who led the fight against the separatists, two rival Free Aceh Movement candidates, and the incumbent acting governor.

The elections have illuminated divisions within the Free Aceh Movement, pitting those who stayed in Aceh to fight against those who fled to Sweden where the Free Aceh Movement maintained a government in exile throughout the conflict.

Whoever wins in Monday's polls must receive at least 25 percent of the vote. Failure to do so will cause a runoff election between the two top contenders in two months.

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