Political competition typically turn friends into rivals; an example evident to many Acehnese in the changing relationship between former governor Irwandi Yusuf and the former commander of the freedom fighters, Muzakir Manaf.
They are competing closely in the election scheduled for April 9, with Muzakir as the running mate of Zaini Abdullah.
Known to many as close friends in the past, “now they like to mock each other every time they please”, a source said, requesting anonymity, as he was close to the rival candidates.
Muzakir once said the “veterinarian” Irwandi should step out of the race. The former GAM executive studied veterinary medicine at Oregon State University, US.
Irwandi said in response that Muzakir must be joking, saying that Muzakir was his “biggest fan”. He added that Muzakir asked Irwandi to join the election if the Aceh Party refused to nominate him.
In a local newspaper, Muzakir had claimed that he had asked Irwandi not to nominate himself as the governor.
Irwandi and Muzakir had known each other since the armed conflict in Aceh in 2000. Their friendship became stronger after Indonesia and GAM signed the MoU for peace in Helsinki in 2005. Irwandi stayed at Muzakir’s home in Banda Aceh after returning from Finland.
“I used to seek food at Mualim’s house when I was hungry,” Irwandi recalled. Mualim is a nickname for Muzakir, meaning “the chief”.
Irwandi always told reporters: “Mualim is my best friend.”
The two were often seen sitting together on many occasions in Aceh, with photographs of them whispering to each other.
“It is sad that a lovely friendship like Irwandi and Mualim’s has ended due to political interest,” said the source, also a former GAM member.
The first test of the relationship came in 2006 during Aceh’s first election after the war.
GAM executives such as Malik Mahmud and Zaini Abdullah nominated Hasbi Abdullah and Humam Hamid as candidates for the Aceh governor and deputy governor. Hasbi, a popular leader, became spokesman for the local legislative council.
On the contrary, some GAM members from the grassroots nominated Irwandi and Muhammad Nazar as governor and deputy governor. The pair won the election with over 60 percent of the vote.
Muzakir, the former GAM commander, had to take painful decisions on which side to support.
“Muzakir should obey GAM leaders like Zaini and Malik. But he was also a close friend of Irwandi and other GAM members who fought together in the conflict. He was under serious pressure,” the above source said.
Irwandi said Muzakir finally gave his support to him a day before voting began.
Five years after the first election, the friendship is under serious threat again, as Muzakir has been appointed a candidate for vice governor with Zaini Abdullah.
Some in Aceh believe that Muzakir is now angry with Irwandi because the former governor did not obey the GAM leader’s instruction not to run for governor.
Irwandi’s nomination is expected to split potential voters for the Aceh Party.
“They wanted me to drop my plan to be a candidate, but the Constitutional Court decided to allow independent candidates [for the gubernatorial election in Aceh], and I will join the race,” Irwandi said.
Irwandi said his best friend was trapped as a candidate to raise more votes for Zaini Abdullah.
“Mualim is famous and GAM members respect him. Mualim has much potential to be a vote gatherer. Zaini stayed too long in Sweden and is less famous,” he said.
There was no confirmation from Muzakir on Irwandi’s statement.
Many GAM members believe the rift between these leaders is “temporary”, as a GAM member from East Aceh said.
Irwandi seems to think so, too.
“I know what Mualim is thinking right now. He is in a difficult position. He is my friend and will always be my friend,” he said, smiling.