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Former Rebel Wins in Aceh's First Elections in Indonesia

Indonesia and its tsunami-ravaged Aceh province have taken another big step away from their conflict-ridden past with first-ever direct elections in the former separatist region. The historic December 11 provincial vote - part of a 2005 peace deal - has ushered in a former rebel with the Free Aceh Movement as governor. Now the focus is on Aceh's future and the prospects for rebels-turned-politicians making good on promises to lift the people out of poverty and fighting. VOA correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins was in Banda Aceh for the election and brings us more on the story.

Irawandi Yusuf - a former separatist rebel fighter in the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM - will become the first directly elected governor of Aceh when official results are announced in early January.

Irawandi, a former professor and political prisoner, campaigned on a platform promising economic recovery, and access to health care and education for all Acehnese.

People here say Irawandi appealed to what they want most: a chance to prosper and live without threat of violence or war.

Fatimah is happy to have had the chance to vote in the December 11 elections for governor, mayors and other top posts. She says now that things are peaceful in Aceh, she hopes the new governor will concentrate on improving the economy.

This election would have been unthinkable before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami roared across Aceh killing almost 170,000 people and destroying most of the infrastructure.

But that same disaster propelled Jakarta and GAM to put aside differences and work together to address the devastation. That cooperation resulted in a peace agreement signed in August 2005 - ending nearly three decades of war that claimed more than 15,000 lives.

The deal ends the province's quest for independence but allows Acehnese more control over how they are governed and a 70 percent share in the revenue from the provinces vast oil and gas resources.

The fact that GAM negotiated successfully to get Aceh more money appears to have been a factor in its success in the elections.

Sidney Jones, the Southeast Asia director of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, says Irawandi likely won the election for governor because the majority of Acehnese perceive GAM as representing their interests.

"I think GAM is very relevant because … it represents the aspirations of many Acehnese who feel they've been cheated or deprived of what they might have had under the Indonesian government based in Jakarta," said Jones.

It is clear the elections are giving a mandate to the former rebels - who now must learn how to govern as they address enormous public need. But the election process also has revealed splits within GAM.

Jones says the split - which pits rebels who stayed in Aceh to fight against those who fled to Sweden, where GAM maintained a government in exile - could hurt GAM's political future.

"I think it's less over issues, the split, than it is over perceptions of what Aceh is and should become and perceptions over who did what during the conflict," she said. "I think it does have ramifications for the future because I just think it will be all that much harder to organize a political party when you have this infighting."

For their part, the rebels do acknowledge some differences in opinion but downplay their significance.

"From our point of view, there is no split in GAM," said GAM spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah. " GAM is still united as a movement, but of course, in all revolutionary movements, due to the transformation process, it happens, differences of opinion, but the unity of GAM is still intact."

In keeping with the peace accord, GAM will be forming its own political party soon, with hopes of fielding candidates for local parliamentary elections in 2009.

Jones, from the International Crisis Group, says if GAM can stay united it has a good chance of winning a significant number of seats in 2009.

"What they would like to do, I think, is to be able to control a local parliament, control the laws made by that local parliament, so they can put the idea of self government to the test," she added.

Jones says after all the war and grief from the tsunami, Acehnese are beginning to think things may improve.

"It's very exciting for Aceh and I think nobody knows what the final outcome is going to be. It's a story where we've had a lot of chapters of war and bloodshed…and we have a lot of people not quite sure yet that the peace is going to hold, but beginning to think that maybe there is a happy ending after all," said Jones.

And a better future is what people here say they now can chart through the ballot box.