Myanmar’s Fragmented Ethnic Politics Mean Post-Election Horse Trading Will Likely be Messy

By Khine Thant

Shan State fire engine in Hsipaw, Myanmar. Source: AX's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Shan State fire engine in Hsipaw, Myanmar. Source: AX’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Editor’s Note: The following post is the fourth in a series by CSIS Sumitro Chair scholars framing the political situation ahead of Myanmar’s general elections in November 2015. 

The critical role of ethnic political parties as kingmakers in the jockeying to form the next government after the November 8 elections has been widely talked about. Yet a closer look shows that Myanmar’s two largest political parties, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) will likely face significant challenges in building coalitions with smaller ethnic parties.

Because personality politics will likely prevail over any policy differences in the election, registered ethnic political parties, which number about 60, are expected to fare relatively well as many voters in ethnic-majority areas will likely vote for candidates who share their backgrounds. 30 percent of available parliamentary seats are in ethnic areas along Myanmar’s borders where about 40 percent of the country’s population lives.

Given these numbers, many observers believe that ethnic parties could be pivotal allies for larger national parties during the post-election, horse-trading period as larger parties try to cobble together majorities to head the two houses of parliament, elect the next president and form the new government.

But the ethnic parties are not monolithic entities. Each group has its own agenda and interests. Even for a number of ethnic parties that have formed coalitions, solidarity between the different ethnic groups is still uncertain. A look at the history of ethnic parties highlight these fractures and divides.

Among the ethnic parties registered for the elections, 14 were established after the 2010 election, which was widely considered a sham engineered by the previous military government. Most ethnic parties were set up after a split from existing ethnic political entities that participated in the 2010 poll and are led by those who, like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, boycotted these elections.

Similarly, out of 22 ethnic parties that contested the 2010 elections, many were established just in time to run for that round of voting . For example, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) won 57 seats in 2010 and became the third largest winner that year, while the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which contested in the 1990 general elections, decided to boycott the 2010 elections. Yet both the SNLD and SNDP will participate in the upcoming elections as the two largest ethnic parties, fielding 156 and 211 candidates, respectively. The two Shan parties will compete head-to-head in many constituencies in Shan State.

The Shan case is not unique. In Mon State, the All Mon Regions Democracy Party had reasonable success in the 2010 elections, whereas the older Mon National Party has been around since the 1990 elections but chose to boycott the 2010 elections The two parties will compete against each other across Mon state in the upcoming balloting. A divided vote between the two established parties is quite possible. It is difficult to predict which of these ethnic parties will prevail or how the votes will be split because there is no historical precedent to test their popularity. Long-standing ethnic parties may have a voter base, but they are being challenged by more recently established parties.

On top of the vote splits among ethnic parties within the same ethnicity, Myanmar’s extremely diverse ethnicities (the government has arbitrarily determined there are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar) mean that further vote splits could be expected. For example, in Kengtung township in Shan state, 6 out of the 12 candidates contesting for a seat in the lower house of parliament are from ethnic parties. The other six candidates are from the NLD, the USDP, the National Union Party, among others.

In addition to vote fragmentation within the ethnic parties, there is an expectation that the NLD’s contesting in ethnic areas will cause further vote splits. Since the campaign season kicked off in September, Aung San Suu Kyi has campaigned extensively in ethnic areas in Kachin state, Kayah state, and recently in Rakhine state. Large crowds gathered in each state to show support for Aung San Suu Kyi. Her campaign received significant support even in Rakhine state, where the NLD is deemed to be less popular, with the Buddhist-monk-led Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) and Rakhine religious nationalists often portraying the NLD as a pro-Muslim party.

Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the NLD’s popularity on the campaign trail will translate into an overwhelming victory—voters could still choose their representatives based on ethnic politics. Nonetheless, the NLD is expected to snare a significant number of votes away from the ethnic parties in their home states.

Despite this fragmentation, ethnic parties do have established avenues for possible coalitions with the larger NLD or USDP. For instance, the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) is an alliance of 15 ethnic parties, which was established in 2002 by 8 ethnic parties that contested the 1990 elections. A more recent ethnic coalition is the National Brotherhood Federation (NBF), established in 2014, with 23 member parties. The strength of these ethnic alliances has yet to be tested. The real test will take place in the post-election, coalition-building period. But the failure of the UNA and the NBF to hammer out an agreement ahead of the upcoming elections not to run candidates in the same constituencies shows serious fractures among ethnic parties and alliances.

The NLD, for its part, has alienated some ethnic parties by fielding candidates in ethnic areas, ignoring the UNA’s proposal to form a coalition and not contest in constituencies in which UNA members’ parties also intend to run. Khun Tun Oo, leader of the large Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and chairman of the UNA, announced in September that the SNLD would not form a political alliance with any party, after the NLD rejected his overture to forge a coalition.

If the NLD does not win over two-thirds of the seats being contested (because the military appoints 25 percent of the parliamentary seats), the party will need to form a coalition with ethnic parties if it wants to gain a majority allowing it to nominate a presidential candidate and form the next government. Aung San Suu Kyi may find that her decision to contest in ethnic-majority areas will reduce her leverage with key ethnic politicians.

It is harder to tell what the dynamics between the USDP and ethnic parties will be like, but many believe that members of the National Brotherhood Federation and parties that ran in the largely boycotted 2010 elections may lean toward the USDP.

Since the ethnic vote is highly fragmented, it means that the ethnic parties are unlikely to win enough seats to have significant impact in the next parliament. For the NLD and USDP, this probably means that post-election horse-trading with ethnic parties will be messy. The two largest parties will likely need to do serious work to build coalitions with 10 or more small, yet likely victorious ethnic parties.

Ms. Khine Thant is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.


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