Myanmar’s Elections: What Now?

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Myanmar’s Elections: What Now?

With the NLD on the brink of a landslide victory in Myanmar’s elections, attention is turning to what comes next.

Myanmar’s Elections: What Now?
Credit: REUTERS/Jorge Silva

YANGON—Four days after Myanmar’s historic November 8 election, it is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is poised for an overwhelming victory. The party claims it is on track to win more than 80 percent of the seats in union and regional legislatures, inflicting a massive defeat on the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political arm of Myanmar’s powerful military.

More than 30 million citizens cast ballots in the poll, Myanmar’s first relatively free national poll in a quarter of a century. Though the Union Election Commission (UEC) has been drip-feeding official results in piecemeal fashion since Sunday, the numbers have been astonishing: As of Wednesday evening, the UEC had the NLD winning 256 of the 294 seats declared so far in the 664-seat Union Parliament.

“It will be more than the result of the 1990 election,” said Nay Phone Latt, an NLD candidate for the Yangon regional parliament, referring to the NLD’s general election victory that year, which was promptly annulled by the military.

The NLD is poised to far exceed the parliamentary majority it needs to form government and select the country’s next president. The party’s success has relied heavily on the almost supernatural aura of its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, channeled effectively by a campaign that elevated “Mother Suu” over any substantial discussion of platform or policy.

This euphoria was palpable in many parts of the country on election day. In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, long lines stretched outside polling stations before they opened at 6 a.m. Daw Than Tha Htwe, 38, waited two hours to cast her vote, and emerged at 8:30 a.m., an ink-stained finger held aloft. When asked who she voted for, she gave a big thumbs up: “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi! All of my friends and all of my neighbors are for Aung San Suu Kyi.”

By the evening, euphoric crowds of NLD supporters – draped in the party’s red star-and-peacock insignia – had gathered in Yangon, Mandalay, and other cities to cheer on the first unofficial election returns.

The magnitude of the USDP’s defeat was underlined by the defeat of key party officials. Among them was the once-powerful parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, who was ousted from the USDP leadership in an internal party coup in August; he admitted defeat in a Facebook post on Monday morning. Also among the vanquished was the USDP’s acting chairman Htay Oo, who conceded his constituency in Hinthada, west of Yangon, telling a reporter simply, “We lost.”

Many struggling USDP candidates were formerly top-ranking officers in the military junta that handed power to the semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein in 2011, after nearly five decades of army rule. The NLD’s victory was so overwhelming that Khin Maung Thein, a candidate in the Sagaing Region parliament, defeated his USDP opponent in a landslide – despite having died two days earlier.

At the same time, observers have sounded a word of caution, pointing out that however bad the USDP’s electoral showing, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, will continue to wield great power. The nation’s constitution, drafted by the old junta and passed by a bogus plebiscite in 2008, ropes off a quarter of parliamentary seats for military candidates. It also ensures that the most powerful ministries – Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs – will all remain under military control, as will the Tatmadaw’s diverse and lucrative business interests. Another provision – Article 59(f) – bars Suu Kyi from holding the presidency, due to her foreign spouse and children.

Since three-quarters of lawmakers are required to amend the constitution, the military holds a de facto veto over any changes. Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said that a new NLD-dominated government would have wide scope to introduce reforms in areas such as health, education, and agriculture – but little power over security matters or the pace of democratic reforms. “The military have used the constitution to try to tie the hands of the government,” Farmaner said. He described the constitution as “effectively a brick wall on the road to reform.”

Myanmar’s next government therefore looms as a strange creature: a composite administration comprising the dominant NLD and the constitutionally entrenched Tatmadaw – the two poles of the country’s generation-long political struggle between democratic reform and military dictatorship

Whatever its particular hue, Myanmar’s new government will inherit some daunting challenges. Despite the signing of a “nationwide” ceasefire agreement last month, the country’s ethnic regions remain unstable and deeply troubled. As the country celebrated its historic election on November 8, local media were reporting that two villagers had been shot by Tatmadaw soldiers in a remote part of Shan State – a reminder of the conflicts that still fester across the country’s mountainous periphery.

The darkest stain on the November 8 election was the disenfranchisement of more than a million Rohingya Muslims living in coastal Rakhine State in the country’s west. They were struck from voter lists because they are considered illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for decades and voted in the last, flawed election in 2010. Many more voters in ethnic areas, including in Shan and Kachin States, were unable to participate after polls were cancelled due to conflict and instability.

With her party stampeding towards a famous victory, Suu Kyi has been increasingly forceful in claiming a political mandate to tackle these problems on her own terms. When the NLD takes power, she has vowed to press for immediate amendments for the constitution She has also provocatively vowed to position herself “above the president,” in open defiance of the constitutional provision barring on her presidency. She told an interviewer Tuesday that whoever the NLD nominates as president – so far the party is  remaining close-lipped about potential candidates – “will be told exactly what he can do.” She added, “He will act in accordance with the decisions of the party.”

So far her opponents have been conciliatory. On Wednesday the NLD said that it had received a message from Information Minister Ye Htut congratulating the party, on behalf of President Thein Sein, for its massive lead in the election. The message pledged that the government would respect the popular will and allow a peaceful transfer of power “in accordance with the legislated timeline.” Later, the Myanmar military itself congratulated the party on its success, pledging to join the NLD, President Thein Sein, and speaker Shwe Mann for “national reconciliation” talks next week.

Yan Myo Thein, a Yangon-based political analyst, predicted the military would likely work “positively and constructively” with the resurgent NLD, but would continue to guard its prerogatives fiercely. “The possibility that the Tatmadaw will ever allow the constitutional amendments that undermine its special position is still minimal,” he said.

On the one hand, a newly emboldened NLD; on the other, a chastened, but still powerful, Tatmadaw – these are the two key actors in the complicated political negotiations that will unspool in the weeks and months ahead.

Richard Horsey, a leading analyst of Myanmar politics, wrote before the election that the creation of a functioning government – one that could tackle the country’s most intractable problems – would ultimately hang on the relationship between the NLD-nominated president and the commander-in-chief. “If they get off to a bad start,” he concluded, “it will be very hard to recover.” In a country being buffeted by change, both sides will have to tread warily.

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh and the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia. His work has appeared in The EconomistAsia Times and The Phnom Penh Post among other publications. He can be reached at [email protected]