Disciplined democracy versus Time for change | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 02, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 02, 2015

MYANMAR GOES TO POLLS

Disciplined democracy versus Time for change

As the parliamen-tary election in Myanmar nears, there are differing forecasts about the performance of the two biggest parties. Opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is actually pitched against the incumbent military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Many predict that NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi will win this time and end military rule; others have forecasted that USDP will return to power.  

There are two constitutional provisions that NLD cannot overcome before the election. Section 59(f) was specifically enacted to debar Suu Kyi from becoming President, as her husband was British and her two sons are also British. Since Suu Kyi cannot become president, she said that NLD will put forward a “suitable” presidential nominee, if NLD wins a majority. However, she may become Speaker of the lower house. 

Clause 436 stipulates that the constitution can be amended only by a majority of 75 percent votes of the Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house). According to the constitution, 25 percent seats (110 seats) are reserved for the military personnel in the house of 440 seats. This ensures that the military members can veto any amendment to the constitution. 

Suu Kyi has declared, “If NLD wins in the election, we will amend the constitution”. To change the constitution, she will need the support of regional ethnic parties, which are likely to play a crucial role in the post-election scenario. But without the blessings of the military parliamentarians, she cannot garner 75 percent votes. Interestingly, none of the political parties have formed any 'coalition' or 'alliance' to fight the election.

Apart from being organisationally and financially weak, NLD is at odds with the military because of its anti-military attitude. Army Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing cancelled a scheduled meeting with Suu Kyi last June. In reality, NLD has no channels of communication with the army. 

General Hlaing has told the BBC that the military will respect the results of the election. Hlaing could say that because the military has done all the engineering to ensure USDP's victory. He knows that a repeat of 1990 will make Myanmar a pariah state again.

The army-backed USDP is much better organised and financially stronger. Retired generals hold important positions in the party. Though it is less popular than NLD, it has built its support across the country during the past five years. Analysts believe that USDP will use the same tactics of the 2010 elections. It will invite or coerce town elder and village leaders to join the party and win the election. It may also dish out favours and buy votes. 

To strengthen his position, Thein Sein, president of so-called “civilian government” and USDP chairman, has taken three drastic steps in mid-August. First, he threw out retired General Thura (hero) Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house and also acting-chairman of USDP. Shwe Mann was accused of hobnobbing with Suu Kyi, who called him “an ally” when he moved the bill to amend the constitution. He was aspiring to become the next president. Shwe Mann is now called a 'traitor' by his former colleagues. Second, Thein Sein allowed nearly 200 retired military officers to join USDP, but Shwe Mann blockedthis move. Finally, he reshuffled his cabinet in August. Former President General Than Shwe was reportedly behind these changes.

There is another phenomenon that will help USDP. The hard-line ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk AshinWirathu of Committee for Protection of Nationality and Religion (“Ma Ba Tha” in Burmese) has openly called upon the Buddhist community to vote for USDP. Wirathu, who led the xenophobic campaign against Muslims in 2011 and 2013, draws huge crowds and is openly patronised by the military. Surprisingly, General Hlaing called on the people to vote for candidates “who can protect race and religion” -- a highly politicised statement that echoes Wirathu. 

Probably taking cue from Wirathu, the Union Election Commission has debarred Muslim candidates from contesting. Suu Kyi has thus far kept quiet on the plight of Rohingyas for fear of losing Buddhist votes. Sadly neither the USDP nor NLD has chosen Muslim candidates to contest, though Myanmar has over five million Muslims. Rohingyas are automatically disenfranchised as they are not considered citizens of the country. It will be a Muslim-free election. 

The election campaign that started on September 8 has been peaceful, so far. However, parties and candidates have been banned from criticising the Tatmadaw. The Election Day is expected to pass off quietly and may appear free and fair. But what the military has done surreptitiously prior to the Election Day is something many observers will not understand or see. 

Carter Centre, one of the observers, has raised issues related to political space, access to voters and disenfranchisement. NLD has also raised objections over errors in the voters' list and warned against “phantom voters”. There are also serious concerns about harassment of local and foreign journalists.

Myanmar's 31 million voters will go to polls on November 8, 2015 to elect 1171 representatives – 330 for the lower house (PyithuHluttaw) of 440 seats, and 168 for the upper house (AmyothaHluttaw) of 224 seats. The remaining 673 representatives will go to the regional assemblies. A total of 92 political parties have fielded 6189 candidates, while 323 are running as independent candidates. Vote counting will take several weeks before the results are announced.

The new parliament will convene end of January 2016, when the new president will be elected by the two houses of parliament. Thein Sein enjoys the support of Army Chief General Hlaing and is sure to win a second term. The new government will start working in March 2016.

NLD is popular because of Aung San Suu Kyi. It will be a test of her slogan “Time for Change” against the Tatmadaw's “disciplined democracy”.

In all likelihood this election will bring back USDP with a majority to be led by Thein Sein. The Tatmadaw is unlikely to hand over power to a real civilian government. It will be old wine in a new bottle. 

The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.

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