WhyItMatters

Myanmar polls a test for parties

Teams from the NLD and local activist groups have been trying to educate a population devoid of experience in democracy after decades of junta rule.
Teams from the NLD and local activist groups have been trying to educate a population devoid of experience in democracy after decades of junta rule. PHOTO: AFP

A line-up of 92 parties with candidates in Myanmar's Nov 8 general election reflects both the diversity of the country and emergence of political freedom just four years after a transition from some five decades of oppressive army rule.

Only two - the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) - are national parties. Both face their first serious test campaigning in the name of change.

The USDP says it is changing the country; the NLD counters that it will bring "real change". NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been telling crowds at rallies: "The coming election is our chance to change the system and go for democracy."

The NLD hopes for enough seats in Parliament to amend the Constitution, pushing back against the military's institutionalised power. The Constitution, which bars Ms Suu Kyi from becoming president because of her foreign family connections, also gives the army a veto over constitutional change.

The election will decide the make-up not only of the federal Parliament, but also of state assemblies. It will be a test of the ability of political and military elites to manage a peaceful transition of power. The key to that will be the ability of party leaders to compromise with one another, and with the military establishment. Whatever the poll result, the military will retain a quarter of parliamentary seats.

In a potentially destabilising factor, the reaction of the largely stateless Rohingya to their disenfranchisement can only be negative. More of the Muslim minority will be fleeing Rakhine state on boats even as the election is held, presenting the rest of Asean with a problem.

Parliament will vote for the president from among three candidates. The Upper and Lower Houses will nominate a candidate and the military will nominate a third. A second term for President Thein Sein will be welcomed by investors, analysts say; he and his team are seen as friendly to foreign investment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2015, with the headline 'Myanmar polls a test for parties'. Print Edition | Subscribe