By Gregory Poling
Editor’s Note: The following post is the fifth in a series by CSIS Sumitro Chair scholars framing the political situation ahead of Myanmar’s general elections in November 2015.
Millions of citizens in Myanmar will go to the polls on November 8 in their first real chance to participate in a democratic (if deeply flawed) election. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to come out on top, though by how much is impossible to guess in the absence of any credible opinion polling. However, its chairwoman’s election strategy, and questions about the party’s capacity to govern, raise the specter that the NLD could be headed for a tactical victory but a strategic defeat.
The NLD has chosen to contest almost every available seat in Myanmar’s national and regional parliaments, pitting many of its candidates against popular ethnic parties that could have been allies rather than competitors. This strategy contrasts sharply with the NLD’s outreach to ethnic parties during the 1990 elections, which were disregarded by Myanmar’s then-ruling junta, and with the coalition government-in-exile that the party co-founded in 1995.
Aung San Suu Kyi and other top NLD officials have insisted that they will gladly work with ethnic parties after the elections, and that the party’s decision to field candidates throughout the country should not be seen as provocative. But many ethnic politicians disagree, and have made clear their anger over the NLD’s refusal to form alliances rather than directly contest with their parties.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD had already received sharp criticisms from many ethnic groups, especially in Kachin, Kayin (Karen), and Shan States, over the past three years. The opposition leader has been accused of ignoring ethnic issues, failing to call strongly for a halt to military offensives in northern Myanmar, and drawing closer to the military as a matter of political expediency. It is hard to know how much damage Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempts to maintain a balance between the military, the administration of President Thein Sein, and the ethnic groups has done to her reputation in ethnic states, but anecdotally, it is clear support for The Lady has slipped. And the NLD’s election strategy is only making that situation worse.
The reality is that no other figure in Myanmar can approach Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity, and her name alone brings in enormous support for the NLD. But in Myanmar’s ethnic-majority states, the NLD is not the powerhouse it is in the Bamar-majority regions. Major ethnic parties like the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party and the Arakan National Party will do well in their own constituencies; and in some districts, popular ethnic politicians will likely trounce lesser known candidates from the NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Worse, by forcing three- (or more) cornered fights in many districts, the NLD might actually help the USDP pick up a plurality of votes in districts where it otherwise would have lost to ethnic parties. Even if the NLD does exceptionally well, it remains to be seen whether the party can win over two-thirds of the contested seats, which is necessary to have a majority in parliament since the military is guaranteed a quarter of seats. So when the dust settles after the vote and the NLD faces the task of cobbling together a governing majority, it could find that the seats it picked up in hotly-contested ethnic areas did not count as much as willing allies would have.
Even more worrying than their approach toward ethnic parties might be the way Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have framed the contest itself. The opposition leader made clear that she expects, and will not be happy with anything less than, an NLD landslide. Speaking at a news conference on November 5, she noted that if the result “is too suspicious, we will have to make a fuss about it.” Many observers took this to mean that the NLD will not necessarily accept the results of the election if it suspects its support was artificially suppressed, or that of the USDP inflated. But in the absence of reliable polling, how will it know? If the NLD wins considerably fewer seats than the party expects, but the thousands of international observers on the ground detect no gross irregularities, will Aung San Suu Kyi accept the results?
Just as the NLD seems fixated on winning a single-party majority, Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that she expects to lead the next government, regardless of the legal technicalities. In the same press conference, she dismissed the constitutional provision banning individuals, like her, with close family who are foreign citizens from serving as president, insisting, “I am going to be above the president…I have already made plans.” In other words, the NLD is prepared to place a figurehead in the presidency out of deference to the law, but The Lady will hold the reins of power. Whether the military will stand for that is at best uncertain. The commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, recently cautioned that any incoming government will need to be able to get along with the military.
Democratic transitions are always fragile, and consolidating democracy requires years of slow, painful compromise. In the decades since the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal kicked off the “third wave of democracy,” the world has seen dozens of nations enter democratic transitions, but many have failed to emerge as robust consolidated democracies. One major difference between those that succeed and those that do not is the ability to bring existing elites—military, political, and economic—along for the ride without provoking an authoritarian backlash. Refusing to bend on principle is to be admired in a democracy activist. It is what made Aung San Suu Kyi an icon. But she is a politician now, and governance requires compromise, especially in the middle of a political transition.
Mr. Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.