Saturday, March 31, 2012
Myanmar’s elections-The general and the Lady
Rarely in politics have so few by-elections assumed so much importance
A YEAR ago few people dared visit the ramshackle headquarters of Myanmar’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The party was banned from political activity and its offices were under constant surveillance by the police and military intelligence.
No longer. The NLD is running a national election campaign, and its rooms are heaving with eager young volunteers licking envelopes and sorting out election posters. Outside, stalls are selling NLD mugs, key-chains and T-shirts, usually adorned with images of Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD’s leader, and her father Aung San, who led the country to independence from Britain in 1947. There are no frills, let alone an instant-rebuttal unit. But the scene would be familiar to any Western campaign staffer—testimony to how far this previously sealed and fearful country has moved in a short space of time.
The bustle is devoted to winning 45 by-elections due to take place on April 1st. With 650-odd parliamentary seats in total, over 80% of them occupied by the army’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the result will not change the balance of power even if the NLD were to win everything. These by-elections are significant—historic even—for different reasons.
They are the first polls the party has contested since 1990, when it won a general election but was banned from taking power by the army. They are the first in Myanmar to be scrutinised, albeit patchily, by international observers. Miss Suu Kyi is running for a Yangon constituency, so she may soon take her place in parliament.
Should the elections go well, or well enough, they could also have significant economic consequences. The vote would provide the best evidence yet that the country’s transition from military rule, which started in earnest a year ago under the new president, Thein Sein, is irreversible. The European Union would almost certainly lift more sanctions, imposed on Myanmar in the mid-1990s. And excited, if weary, foreigners might be reassured enough to start pumping large amounts of investment into the impoverished country. In an attempt to encourage them further, the government this week announced plans to float the currency.
So far, though, the campaign has provided plenty of reminders of how fragile Myanmar’s political transition remains. The government postponed three by-elections in the minority-dominated state of Kachin last week because of security worries. Fighting between the army (dominated by the ethnic Burman majority) and the military wings of many of the country’s ethnic groups continues.
If anything, conflict has intensified in Kachin, producing thousands more refugees.
The NLD claims the army has grabbed the opportunity of an election to launch new offensives while people are looking the other way. One of the Kachin constituencies is close to the country’s largest jade mine, the proceeds of which go mostly to generals and their cronies. The unequal distribution of Myanmar’s enormous natural wealth will continue to fuel conflict until there is some sort of political settlement, such as a federal arrangement. But that looks a long way off.
The campaign has also provoked concerns about the health of the country’s two most important politicians: the president and “the Lady”. On March 25th Miss Suu Kyi had to give up campaigning, exhausted. The 66-year-old had set herself a punishing schedule, touring the country on behalf of the NLD’s candidates and drawing enormous crowds. This took its toll; it was her second collapse in a few months. Mr Thein Sein, also born in 1945, is known to be in poor health. He has heart disease, and recently went to Singapore to have his pacemaker checked.
Field of dreams
To an unusual and possibly dangerous degree, the achievements of reform rest on the trust between the slight, bespectacled former general and the charismatic daughter of a liberation hero. If one or both were to leave the scene, it is not clear that enough momentum has been generated for reform to carry on. Pessimists worry that military conservatives would try to turn the clock back.
The campaign has exposed confusion within the regime about how far and fast it is willing to let the NLD go towards sharing—or even winning—power. The president has made worthy speeches saying that elections have to be free and fair. He needs Miss Suu Kyi in parliament to legitimise reform, with the ultimate aim of getting sanctions lifted. But the message does not always filter down.
Away from the cities, the NLD claims, its candidates are followed, filmed and intimidated by the secret police—just like old times. In the new capital, Naypyidaw, Miss Suu Kyi had to address supporters out in the fields because she was denied access to some of the largest indoor halls in Asia. A few election observers were allowed in, but only at the last minute. Some of this might be the result of bureaucratic confusion. But it could also reflect power struggles within the regime.
The NLD still hopes to win more than two-thirds of the seats on offer. The most significant contests are for the four seats in the capital. Here at least half of the voters are employed by the regime, and they have been promised loans and other goodies by the USDP. The NLD, which has deployed a rapper, Zeya Thaw, as one of its candidates, still hopes to win at least one seat. If it picks up more, that would strip the regime of any lingering claims to legitimacy.