Expectations 'need to be managed' for Myanmar election

People checking voter lists in Rakhine state in Myanmar. The Nov 8 poll will open a new chapter for Myanmar, which is still fragile and making a transition from decades of military rule.
People checking voter lists in Rakhine state in Myanmar. The Nov 8 poll will open a new chapter for Myanmar, which is still fragile and making a transition from decades of military rule.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Polls will open new chapter but military's grip still secure: Analysts

Myanmar's first open general election in 25 years will be a watershed in a still-fragile, four-year-old transition from decades of military rule.

 The Nov 8 poll announced this week will open a new chapter for Myanmar, which could see significant steps towards eventual full democracy if new political parties push for amendments to the Constitution to - at least partially - roll back the footprint of the military. 

But analysts caution that expectations - especially of who will be president - need to be managed. It is almost certain not to be opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The 70-year-old Nobel laureate is barred from holding that office under the military-drafted Constitution as she was married to a foreigner and has sons who are foreign nationals.

The military's stamp is secure. It occupies a quarter of the 664 parliamentary seats by appointment, so in effect, it has veto power over all legislation, as well as the amendment process itself. And in the executive branch, the commander-in-chief nominates three key ministers - those of immigration, border affairs and the interior.

The rest of the political space, however, is open. The main contest will be between the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). Both will compete nationally. But Myanmar's political landscape is now populated with dozens of political parties which will contest the election, individually and in alliances. The Federal Union Party, which brings together several ethnic parties, could, for example, secure enough seats to play a pivotal role in post-poll deals.

MPs elect the president, not the public, and a period of hard bargaining from November to February next year will decide who it will be.

Among the dealmaking stakes will also be the post of Speaker of Parliament - a powerful position given its pivotal role in any debate on amending the Constitution.

Most political pundits think the NLD will emerge the strongest party, powered by Ms Suu Kyi and her pedigree as daughter of the martyred independence hero General Aung San.

Some even predict the USDP will be wiped out. The party is said to be under internal strain, and this week, senior figure Aung Thaung was flown to Singapore for treatment after a stroke. He is said to be close to the enigmatic former dictator Senior General Than Shwe, and last year was blacklisted by the United States on grounds of undermining political reforms and "perpetuating violence".

 With Ms Suu Kyi barred from the presidency but with significant clout to decide who may fill the role, the other strong contender is current Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, 67, a former general and an enthusiastic reformer in Parliament.

But well-placed Myanmar analysts and diplomats who spoke to The Straits Times said the military was unhappy that last month, he allowed a vote to amend an article in the Constitution.  

 The military then blocked the amendment to articles that, in effect, gives it a veto on even attempting to change the Constitution. Civilian MPs were quoted as saying this showed the military will not tolerate any change that could even slightly roll back its power.

Meanwhile, President Thein Sein, 70, who had previously shown little interest in a second term, said he might be available, based on comments in Tokyo last weekend.

 The state-owned Global New Light Of Myanmar reported that "As for the second term of the presidency, the President said that the decision depends on the situation of the country and will of the people, which he said he would take seriously."

 In April, the International Crisis Group concluded: "With Aung San Suu Kyi constitutionally barred from the presidency and no obvious alternative within its ranks, it is probable that even if the party wins a landslide, it will have to select a compromise candidate for president - potentially a reformist member of the old regime."

 The military is still the trump card, Dr Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who now runs a civil society organisation called Tampadipa, said in an e-mail to The Straits Times. Coalitions would be needed to install the president, he wrote. There was speculation that Ms Suu Kyi would make a deal for her support in exchange for eventual amendment of the article in the Constitution that bars her from the presidency.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2015, with the headline 'Expectations 'need to be managed' for Myanmar election'. Print Edition | Subscribe