The Debate

Could Aung San Suu Kyi Be Myanmar’s Next House Speaker?

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The Debate

Could Aung San Suu Kyi Be Myanmar’s Next House Speaker?

While attention has been focused on her presidential prospects, another position may also be a possibility as well.

Could Aung San Suu Kyi Be Myanmar’s Next House Speaker?

Aung San Suu Kyi in a meeting with U.S. President Brack Obama in Myanmar back in 2014.

Credit: Flickr/U.S. State Department

In recent months, it has proven extremely difficult to address the issue with her. Even her close entourage continues to politely sweep the question under the rug.

Aung San Suu Kyi has made no secret of her presidential ambitions. However, in June, the first attempt by her party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – to amend the constitutional provision that barred her from the presidency, failed. Since then, discussions have quietly emerged about the possibility of the iconic opposition leader jockeying for the House speakership after legislative polls are held this November.

Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution created a bicameral parliament comprised of a 440-member lower house (Pyithu Hluttaw) and a 224-member upper house (Amyotha Hluttaw). Both chambers are presided over by a speaker chosen by their respective elected and military-appointed members. Nothing in the constitution prevents a legislator from being elected speaker. At the top of the legislative branch, the presidency of the joint Union legislature (or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) rotates between the two speakers: the speaker of Amyotha Hluttaw (or House of Nationalities) presides over the first half of the 5-year legislature, while the speaker of Pyithu Hluttaw (or House of Representatives) oversees the second half.

Both speakers enjoy a wide range of policy prerogatives. The constitution allows them to develop strong policymaking autonomy from the executive branch. The Union president – elected by a presidential college combining all elected and appointed legislators – cannot dissolve the parliament. Yet the latter can supervise procedures of impeachment of not only the head of state, but also cabinet ministers and even Supreme Court judges. After fourteen days, bills approved in parliament but not signed by the president automatically become laws. A speaker from a party openly opposed to the governmental majority can therefore use the legislative branch he or she controls to advance new legislation that even Myanmar’s armed forces (or Tatmadaw) could not effectively oppose – unless draft bills can be linked to a constitutional matter and thus vetoed by military-appointed lawmakers. As the U.S. political system has repeatedly illustrated, risk of paralysis abounds when a rebellious legislature opts for systematic obstructionist politics.

Therefore, would it be wise for the iconic Nobel laureate, instead of going for the high-hanging presidential fruit, to jostle for the speakership of the lower house (where she seeks a re-election) and use the parliamentary institution as an effective political platform to impose transformational legislation in the coming years? And even if she wanted to, could she?

The path to the speakership may indeed prove tricky for Aung San Suu Kyi. In late January next year, the 664 Union-level legislators are scheduled to convene and elect their respective speakers and deputy speakers. These four presiding officers will then supervise the crucial presidential election a few days later. To safely select the house leaders without negotiating any alliance with other parties or independent lawmakers, the NLD must gain at least 67 percent of the seats open for grab in both chambers (221 in Pyithu Hluttaw and 113 in Amyotha Hluttaw). With a landslide NLD victory in November, Aung San Suu Kyi will certainly settle for the big chair in the lower house. If unsuccessful, however, she–or any NLD would-be speaker–will face strong competition.

If re-elected in his rural constituency or Yamethin and Pyawbwe, located just north of Naypyidaw, U Khin Aung Myint, the current speaker of the upper house, may certainly run for a second tenure – unless he is encouraged to enter the presidential race. In the lower house, Thura U Shwe Mann, the current speaker still appears politically alive and active. Pushed into a corner by the military in August, his chances of becoming president have vanished. Yet, he may still aim to retain his hold on the lower house’s speakership.

For that, he must first win election in the constituency of Pyu, his hometown. This is far from a done deal, given the tough local opposition he will face from a NLD veteran, U Than Nyunt, and a well-connected retired army officer, U Ko Ko Kyaw. Once (and if) reelected, Shwe Mann will then have to gather an across-the-board backing in the Pyithu Hluttaw from the newly-elected legislators–as one can safely assume that the appointed military bloc will oppose his second bid for the speakership, as would the NLD if the party supports Aung San Suu Kyi for the same post.

What remains to be seen is how many of his loyal partisans within the USDP ranks will gain a seat and how much ethnic and independent support the former joint chief of staff of the Tatmadaw can garner from lawmakers unwilling to go for an NLD-led legislature. Many an ethnic legislator, especially among Rakhine, Kachin and Shan parties, have lauded Shwe Mann’s speakership over the past five years. Many may prove reluctant to openly support Aung San Suu Kyi for that very same reason.

Another strong contender in the lower house is U Htay Oo, who replaced Shwe Mann as patron of the USDP in August. Quiet yet ambitious, Htay Oo seeks a reelection in his native constituency of Hinthada, deep within the rural Irrawaddy delta. A former minister during the junta heydays and a powerful committee chair in the lower house since 2011, Htay Oo has long played his political cards skillfully, maintaining a fine balance of loyalties towards ex-junta leader Than Shwe and his successor President Thein Sein, as well as Shwe Mann and Khin Aung Myint in the Union legislature. He would certainly have the backing of the military bloc, not just for the leadership in the house but also as a presidential nominee.

The Tatmadaw – controlling 166 votes out of 664 in the parliament – will surely keep a close eye on the candidates for the two speakerships. Both leaders of the upper and lower chambers are constitutionally assigned a seat each in the secretive National Defense and Security Council (NDSC). The armed forces would certainly feel uneasy with one or even two vocal NLD members sitting in this crucial, yet opaque, 11-member institution envisioned by the 2008 Constitution, where key policy matters are regularly discussed without any oversight from outsiders. As long as the constitutional text is not amended, this is a place from which Aung San Suu Kyi – or any future state leaders of Myanmar – does not want to be excluded. If not elected speaker, the NLD chief would have only one other option to penetrate that inner policymaking circle currently dominated by USDP leaders and the Tatmadaw: being appointed foreign minister.

Many among Aung San Suu Kyi’s fiercest critics, however, have argued that given her tendency to micromanage every possible issue and her autocratic style, she does not hold the precise skills and patience required to serve as a rallying speaker. Backroom dealing and intrigue will surely dominate the upcoming legislature, which is expected to prove extremely segmented and politically fractured. Unlike the first post-junta legislature that convened between 2010 and 2015, the control of the next legislative bodies will prove far more laborious, especially if none of the major political parties dominate. Powerful parliamentary groups may soon assert themselves and proactively engage in anti-establishment and explicitly rebellious legislative activities. Military legislators – so far relatively quiescent backbenchers – may start to systematically favor obstructionist tactics to more straightforwardly protect the core interests of the armed forces in the Union assembly.

Some of the staunchest supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi have rather quietly contended that she should not further tarnish her already tainted political reputation through a direct participation in intense intra-house intrigues. They believe the democratic icon should keep out of the parochial parliamentary jousting that will emerge in the upcoming legislature and opt instead for a Sonia Gandhi-esque matriarchal role.

But beyond her likely triumphant reelection in the remote constituency of Kawhmu this coming November, Aung San Suu Kyi evidently seeks a key elective national post – both for her prestige and her political legitimacy. Rumors in Yangon have stubbornly labeled her the next foreign minister, especially if an improbable coalition government is to be formed next year. But as house speaker, she would hold far more policymaking powers and could more or less control the legislative agenda for the next five years – unless of course her potentially belligerent positions increasingly, and directly, threaten the armed forces.

In any case, in a near future doubtlessly dominated by the salience of the ethno-religious question, a continuing military intervention in politics and a high personalization of power, Myanmar will need a core group of pragmatic policymakers with a shrewd sense of expediency and an eye for political compromises. That will start within the walls of the parliament next January, with an election of two speakers that should not be overlooked.

Renaud Egreteau is a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. His latest co-edited book, Metamorphosis: Studies in Social and Political Change in Myanmar (Singapore, NUS Press 2015) has just been released.