Don't expect too much from Myanmar's election: The Nation

A supporter carrying his baby as Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at a rally in Yangon on Nov 1.
A supporter carrying his baby as Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at a rally in Yangon on Nov 1. PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on Nov 3, 2015, The Nation says that Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD) seems poised to win - and lose - the coming election

Voters in Myanmar are hopeful that Sunday's (Nov 8) election will bring about significant change but, for foreign observers, optimism is at a premium when it comes to a country that has faltered at the very cusp of democratic reform.

The coming weekend's polls mark the first time in 25 years the two major political parties are facing one another in a national race - the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the far more popular NLD.

Cheated in the 1990 election, the NLD declined to participate in the 2010 polls, the first held under the 2008 Constitution.

Its boycott sealed the USDP's grip on power.

In 2012 by-elections the NLD won 10 seats in parliament, signalling at last a dramatic shift in the political landscape, even if its tiny share of the legislature would prevent it from imposing needed changes on the Constitution.

Made freshly aware of the groundswell in public support for reform, President Thein Sein doubled down on efforts to revitalise the economy and make peace with militant ethnic groups.

Attempts to amend the Constitution were blocked, however, leaving voters to face the fact that the military, which has controlled politics for more than half a century since independence, has no intention of ceding authority.

The Constitution ensures that representatives of the armed forces will retain at least a quarter of parliamentary seats regardless of this election's outcome.

It also bars NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, even if she commands a large plurality in the polling, because members of her immediate family are foreigners.

Should Suu Kyi's NLD win on Sunday with a majority big enough to dominate the Cabinet, the party faces a grave dilemma, since no other person in its ranks is seen as qualified to assume the presidency.

Should the NLD win but not handily enough to form a government, the military could readily force a minority coalition government, leaving the NLD in opposition once again.

It is worrying to ponder how NLD supporters might react to this latter development when expectations are running so high.

Being relegated to the opposition benches yet again might prove intolerable.

It must be noted that Thein Sein has brought about substantial improvements in the past five years.

Were it not for the egregious problems left unattended - matters of rights, citizenship and democracy - his successes might even serve to justify the military elite's refusal to change the law.

Whether by dint of repressive policies or not, the run-up to the election has remained relaxed and positive compared to previous polls. Suu Kyi and the NLD campaign have dominated media coverage both locally and internationally, whereas USDP candidates are seldom heard from.

Thein Sein managed to sign ceasefire agreements with eight armed ethnic minorities last month, but others are still fighting government forces, a factor that will prevent voters in some remote areas from casting ballots on Sunday.

If Thein Sein wins a second term as president, he faces the challenge of securing peace throughout the country and sustaining the atmosphere of political compromise essential to carrying through his reform agenda, in the face of grand expectations.

The incumbent also managed to settle a power struggle within his own party last month, but it is doubtful he could persuade the generals to relax controls on civilian life and give the people greater say in running the country.

And it remains virtually impossible to imagine the military withdrawing from politics altogether.

* The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers seeking to promote coverage of Asian affairs.