By Murray Hiebert
Editor’s Note: The following post is the second in a series by CSIS Sumitro Chair scholars framing the political situation ahead of Myanmar’s general elections in November 2015.
One of the biggest unknowns about Myanmar’s November 8 elections is how the ruling, military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will fare.
In largely pre-cooked elections in 2010 that were boycotted by most opposition parties, including opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the USDP snared the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats. But in more inclusive and open elections in November, most observers largely assume that the USDP will take a drubbing thanks to its ties to the military, which ruled Myanmar for decades.
Just how badly the USDP will be hit is hard to guess. The party certainly brings the power of incumbency, including through its links to civil servants and government ministries, access to considerable funds and the state-run media, and a network of staff and offices through most of the country. The armed forces employ over 513,000 people in Myanmar. In the 2010 elections, the military allegedly manipulated the advance votes of military personnel – including officers, trainees, and students – to its advantage. It is unclear whether the government will allow international observation of advance voting on military premises in November.
USDP candidates have been active in providing rice and cement to rebuild roads in areas in lower and central Myanmar hit by floods in August. Since NLD candidates have fewer resources at their disposal than their USDP counterparts, some voters have defected from the opposition to the ruling party, according to news reports in the local media. Campaigning USDP candidates continue to make the pitch in their constituencies that the current government has created jobs and is bringing economic development and foreign investment to the country.
According to an Asian Barometer Survey released on August 24, 17 percent of the respondents backed the USDP, only 7 percent lower than the NLD. But fully half of the respondents refused to identify a preferred party, suggesting that many voters are still undecided. In a survey last year conducted by the U.S.-backed International Republican Institute, 51 percent of people asked said they had a favorable view of the USDP.
It is not clear whether the dramatic ouster of former USDP chairman Shwe Mann, who still retains his position as parliamentary speaker, will have any long-term impact on voters. Shwe Mann, a former high ranking general, angered the military by spearheading efforts in parliament two months earlier to amend the constitution to reduce the military’s role in politics.
Just before he was sacked in the middle of the night while armed security guards surrounded the massive USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw, Shwe Mann had approved only 59 of the 159 senior officers who had retired from the military to stand for elections under the USDP banner. But that number was still below what the military leadership had wanted to see. A number of Shwe Mann’s allies in the party were also replaced, but it is uncertain to what extent the split in the USDP will dent the party’s performance in November, or how it will manifest following the November elections and before the next government takes office.
Another unknown is the role Buddhist nationalists and anti-Muslim rhetoric will play in swinging voters behind the USDP. Some members of the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly referred to as Ma Ba Tha in Burmese and linked to the rise of anti-Muslim feelings in recent years, have called the NLD “the party of Islamists.” Ma Ba Tha and the NLD clashed over four “protection of race and religion” laws recently passed by parliament that restricted interfaith marriage and religious conversion. According to press reports in local newspapers, Ma Ba Tha pamphlets and CDs have been distributed at food donation ceremonies attended by USDP candidates calling on people not to vote for the NLD.
Even if the USDP wins only 10 to 15 percent of the available seats in parliament, it has the enormous advantage of being able to form a coalition with the 25 percent of the legislature that is appointed by the military. If the USDP can convince some ethnic parties to join a coalition, it may even be able to cobble together a ruling coalition by winning less than a quarter of the parliamentary seats. That would likely give the party the heft it would need to elect the next president.
It is not clear that the USDP has a platform other than the unspoken plank about ensuring military’s dominance and autonomy in Myanmar’s politics. Like in neighboring countries, the biggest difference between political parties in Myanmar appears to be related to their leaders. President Thein Sein and his ministers often remind voters that it was the current government that launched a series of political and economic reforms in 2011 and brought in international aid and foreign investment.
In a recent video, Thein Sein, who has taken over the chairmanship of the USDP from Shwe Mann but is not running for a parliamentary seat, depicted himself as a champion of freedom of expression. The video praised him for promoting the right to protest, allowing trade unions, and creating space for newspapers to be printed. “Once, Myanmar was a country which was full of censorship where people could never dream of freedom of expression,” the video’s subtitles say. “Since president Thein Sein took charge, everything has changed.”
By nominating over 150 senior military candidates to run as USDP candidates, it appears the military leadership has bet that the incumbent USDP will be able to win enough seats to hold onto a parliamentary majority when coupled with the military’s guaranteed 25 percent of seats. Most militaries would be anxious about losing that many top leaders at one time, but in Myanmar it appears the military has bet that in the short term, it is more important to hold political power than to prepare its personnel for external or domestic security threats.
If the USDP and the military block in parliament manage to hold a majority following the November elections, the military will be assured of its ability to elect the next president, who will hold the power to appoint cabinet ministers for the government’s next five-year term.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.