The Myanmar Election Commission has confirmed that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has won a landslide victory in the by-elections held on April 1. These elections were held in 43 national parliamentary seats and for two seats in Division-level parliaments. Elections in three constituencies in Kachin State were cancelled owing to security concerns.
Suu Kyi registered a big victory in her constituency, and the NLD reportedly won more than 40 seats out of 45, soundly beating the ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. While the number of seats is small, the stakes were high. The various constitutional provisions mandate that the president, vice-president and union ministers cease to be members of parliament. In consequence, most of the seats for which elections were held were those of current ministers. And while the Constitution also prescribes that ministers cease to be members of political parties, the loss of seats formerly held by ministers indicates the undeniable popularity of Suu Kyi and the NLD. Suu Kyi becomes, in effect, the de facto leader of the Opposition.
Compared to previous exercises, these elections registered great advances in electoral procedure. Observers and journalists from organizations and countries like the United States of America, the European Union and the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations observed the polling. There were reports about denial of venues for public meetings, limited access to the media, suspicions over advance voting, alleged tampering with ballot papers, mismanagement of ballot boxes and inaccurate voters’ lists. But these infirmities could be because of lack of experience in conducting elections, and the results suggest that the people’s verdict was credibly reflected.
There is no doubt that the nominally civilian pro-military junta wanted Suu Kyi to be elected and to convert her from a liability to an asset. There is speculation that she may be invited to join the cabinet, but if she accepts such an offer, she will have to deliver solutions instead of making complaints from outside, and her performance may have consequences for the next elections in 2015. And the NLD will need a new leadership, since ministers have to sever their links with political parties. Suu Kyi may find it difficult to bridge the gap between being a national icon called ‘Our Lady’ and an elected politician.
Suu Kyi may do better, if given the option, to nominate an NLD expert for a ministerial position. That would ensure she maintains some critical distance from the government. A third possibility is that the NLD may choose to function as an Opposition party. The Constitution mandates that to qualify for presidential and vice-presidential positions, the candidate’s parents, spouse, any legitimate children or their spouses cannot owe allegiance to a foreign power. Suu Kyi was married to a British national and is thus debarred. But those scenarios are for the distant and speculative future.
Suu Kyi is now 66 years old, in uncertain health, and the country has changed greatly while she has been in detention. She has to contend not only with divisions in the military, some of whom are opposed to democratic measures, but with ethnic unrest (on which she has not expressed any significant opinion) and dissidence in her own party, some of whose followers left her because she was too autocratic and unbending, and others because she was not hard enough in opposing the generals. She may prove to be no Nelson Mandela, who made the step from prison to power with elegance and magnanimity, while General Than Shwe is certainly no F.W. de Klerk.
In spite of the NLD’s performance, it is in no position to dent the USDP’s control since it has less than 7 percent strength in parliament. There will be disjunction between the potential of the NLD and its parliamentary numbers, which may generate friction. Suu Kyi will first have to consolidate her essential rapport with President Thein Sein and engage constructively with the ruling party in order to promote the NLD’s long-term interests, which may generate disappointment among her supporters who demand faster movement towards democracy.
In the coming days, the demands for altering constitutional provisions, which mandate a privileged role for the armed forces in parliament and in the executive, will gain momentum. Anticipating this possibility, the commander of the armed forces, citing the Constitution, has reportedly reiterated that armed forces must have a special role in national leadership. Suu Kyi has been cautious in demanding a review of the Constitution by stating that such a review should happen “within the framework of the parliament” — where the USDP has a massive majority and some 25 percent of seats are reserved for military personnel. It remains to be seen how the demands for faster steps towards participatory democracy and the role of the military in national leadership will be reconciled.
The by-elections took place substantially in the divisions and not the states, where the non-Burmese ethnic groups are in a majority. Nonetheless, the absence of even a symbolic alliance between the NLD and the major ethnic parties is significant. In the 2010 elections, in spite of multiple constraints, ethnic parties such as the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party performed well. The relationship in parliament between the NLD and other parties, including ethnic parties, will have a significant impact on Myanmar politics.
While there is significant movement in the area of electoral democracy, the continued ethnic conflict will retard faster movement towards democratic change. There is armed conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, and the ceasefire with Karen National Union is tenuous. With the NLD’s formal entry into parliament, there will be growing pressure on Suu Kyi to take initiatives in resolving the ethnic conflict, and this is an area where Suu Kyi and Thein Sein must move very cautiously because any concession can be portrayed as weakening national unity by hardliners within the armed forces.
It is distinctly possible that sanctions on Myanmar will be lifted in a progressive manner. The European Union is to discuss the matter this month, and it has, wisely or otherwise, linked its policy exceptionally closely to Suu Kyi’s political future. If her party joins the government, the justification for sanctions will be very difficult for the regime’s opponents. We may expect offers of aid and developmental assistance to pour in to Myanmar from international organizations.
Beijing has been too preoccupied with its domestic turbulence to pay much attention to the elections. There are apprehensions among Chinese business circles, especially on the Sino-Myanmar border, that improvement in ties with the West and the strengthening of the NLD will not be favourable. Suu Kyi seeks to allay such fears by assuring them that foreign investment is welcome as long as the Burmese benefit. China is a dominant player in Myanmar, and has even facilitated meetings between Kachin armed groups and the government on the Chinese side of the border.
China is Myanmar’s leading importer and arms supplier, and its economic, political and military support over the decades has been critical to the regime. There is a close nexus between Chinese entrepreneurs and Burmese military families. In short, China’s position in Myanmar is such that Naypyidaw will not find it easy to reorient its policies. But developments in Myanmar also represent a challenge for China in ideological terms. China does not merely support authoritarian countries for their natural resources; it also exports the idea of “going capitalist and staying autocratic”. If Myanmar can successfully evolve as a liberal democratic country, the effect will be felt well beyond its borders.
Indian interests are deeply involved with the happenings in Myanmar. There is no hope of development in India’s neglected and conflict-ridden Northeast without intimate economic relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh. Suu Kyi has much to criticize New Delhi for, and India’s last generous overture to Suu Kyi was the award of the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize when one of the writers was the foreign secretary. But she has said, “India can never do enough to help the cause of democracy in Myanmar.”
India must model its engagement on stabilizing the transition process while keeping in mind that political transitions are often treacherous. In our immediate neighbourhood, many countries have witnessed swings between civilian rule and military rule. Such a trajectory for Myanmar will lead to immense disappointment and public misery. It is to be hoped that the democratic process is irreversible. It will be as much for Suu Kyi as for Thein Sein and the generals to demonstrate political sagacity. The euphoria can wait.