INDONESIA'S province of Aceh, once a byword for the intractability of conflict, is witnessing one of the world's most successful peace processes. That process passed an important milestone on December 11th, when voters went to the polls for the first direct elections for the provincial governor and 19 of the 21 district chiefs.
Sixteen months ago the region on the northern tip of Sumatra was mired in a 29-year-long separatist conflict that had claimed 12,000 lives. And it was reeling from the massive earthquake and tsunami the previous December that killed some 170,000 people across the province and left 500,000 homeless.
The disaster opened the eyes of both the government in Jakarta and the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to Aceh's war-weariness. A peace deal was struck in August 2005. Since then, events have unfolded more hopefully than anyone could have predicted. Under the supervision of monitors led by the European Union, GAM disarmed and Indonesian troops returned to barracks. A law was passed granting Aceh generous autonomy.
Held amid unprecedented traffic jams, the optimism surrounding the election was palpable. Official results will not be declared until January. But two separate and reliable counts from several hundred sample polling stations predict the next governor will be Irwandi Yusuf. He is a former Gam commander, who escaped from prison when the tsunami knocked down the front wall. He went on to help negotiate the peace deal and then became Gam's representative on a joint security commission with the government.
Mr Irwandi and his running mate, Muhammad Nazar, another veteran independence activist, are forecast to have won about 39% of the vote. The second-placed pairing also included a Gam representative. So the movement in effect won 55.5% of the popular vote. This rejection of the Jakarta establishment was much more comprehensive than most observers, let alone the government, had foreseen.
It is not, however, a mandate to renew the war for independence. One credible exit poll revealed that protecting the peace process had three times more weight in determining voting decisions than did any other factor. Though he has no administrative experience, Mr Irwandi is expected to respect the popular will and cement the peace process rather than seek ways to dismantle it.
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