Friday, March 12, 2010

Political Parties in Myanmar: Hard Choices Ahead

Opinion Asia

Now that the long-awaited registration law for political parties had been announced on 8 March, the existing ten political parties and new aspirants have their work cut out for them. They face a daunting task to meet the stringent requirements set by the Political Parties Registration Law (State Peace and Development Council Law No. 2/2010).

According to the Union Election Commission Law (Law No. 1/2010), the election commission comprising a minimum of five members (17 - chaired by the current Deputy Chief Justice, a former Judge Advocate General - were named on 11 Mar 2010) will have the power to register, de-register and supervise the political parties in line with the provisions of the party registration law just like in the laws enacted in September 1988 to facilitate the 1990 elections.

Compared to the previous law promulgated on 27 September 2008, the current law is more comprehensive in its criteria for the organisation and membership of political parties contesting the 2010 elections, the date of which is yet to be announced. The 2010 Law contains 25 detailed articles in five chapters in contrast to just nine articles in four chapters in its predecessor. In fact, the 1988 Law did not stipulate any criteria for party membership and spelt out only the type of organisations that would ineligible for registration as a (new) political party, whereas the 2010 Law delineates detailed eligibility criteria not only for the party itself (in terms of organisational features) but also for its “founding members” and potential “party members”. In the case of legally existing parties, they have to apply within 60 days from the date of promulgation of this law - though the election commission has not been formed yet - and a registration fee (thus far unspecified) would be levied.

Any new political party, be it national (organising and operating nation-wide; presumably to contest national elections) or regional (territorially confined to a state or region for provincial elections), faces huge challenges in its formation, recruitment and operation. For a start, at least 15 eligible persons must get together to apply for party registration and these founding members must be at least 25 years old. They cannot be associated, directly or indirectly, with insurgent and terrorist groups, unlawful organisations, implicated in any transgression relating to the law on narcotics and psychotropic substances, serving a jail sentence or belong to a religious order. Once registered, the party must undertake to recruit, within 90 days, at least 1,000 members for a national party and 500 members for a regional party. The eight-point eligibility criteria and the undertaking prescribed for party members are identical to those for the founding members except for a reduced age threshold of 18. The party must not incite racial or religious conflict nor damage morality and integrity through speech, publications or any form of mobilisation. The party is not allowed to accept, directly or indirectly, support in cash or kind from a government, religious or other organisation, or any individual of a foreign state and must not be beholden to any of them. The party will be deregistered if it: fails to meet any of the stipulated requirements; knowingly retains an ineligible member; is unable to contest a minimum of three constituencies in the relevant electoral process; or cannot maintain the minimum membership quota beyond a grace period of 90 days.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), which has yet to decide on contesting the forthcoming elections, has recently inducted incarcerated members into its expanded Central Committee and its Secretary-General Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is also serving a
sentence. Unless the NLD expels them, it is in danger of having its re-registration rejected. Moreover, the NLD has refused to accept the 2008 Constitution unless it is revised, thereby standing in contravention of the party registration law.

On the other hand, the proscription against those linked to insurgents, terrorists and unlawful organisations would effectively ban many ethnic political aspirants as well as NLD members and even their parties as they have been alleged to have some links with anti-junta expatriate groups such as the NLD (liberated Areas), All Burma Student Democratic Front and Burma Lawyers Council, and ethnic minority groups associated with the National Council of Union of Burma. Moreover, many Western lobby and advocacy groups, international non-governmental organisations and even governments have been accused of supporting the NLD and other ethnic political parties and such linkages may be taken as violation of the prohibitions of the party registration law.

Finally, the Union Election Commission Law (Law No. 1/2010) also authorises the election commission to withhold elections in areas deemed to be “insecure”. This could dash the hopes of ethnic-based parties to contest and win in border regions where they have strong constituencies. These areas could be those where armed ceasefire groups have been resisting the junta’s bid to downsize and incorporate their troops under army command as border guards or militia.

As such, the NLD and other incumbent parties must now decide whether to play by the junta’s rules or face extinction or, at best, marginalisation. For old and new parties that are willing to play the electoral game, the coming months would be truly challenging season and it remains to be seen whether they have the necessary will, resources and the ingenuity to meet those challenges and realise their aspirations to participate successfully in the upcoming election. By Tin Maung Maung Than Senior Fellow and coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He specialises in Myanmar issues.

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