By C. S. Kuppuswamy
With less than a month for the election there is more fervour in the Burmese media in exile and in the international media than in the local papers, presumably due to strict censorship of election related news in the print and visual media. Reports smuggled out of the country on the reactions of the common man are mixed with some looking forward to exercising this privilege after two decades and some with a sense of reconciliation to take things as they “come by”.
The elections are to be held in the country on 07 November 2010 after two decades (The last election was held in 1990 in which the main opposition party, National League for Democracy – NLD had won 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats. The NLD was not allowed by the military junta to take over and the results were ignored).
Under the 2008 constitution there are two houses of parliament at the centre (instead of one as before) and there will be 14 State/Regional assemblies. Elections are to be held for 440 seats in the lower house or People’s Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) and 224 seats in the upper house or Nationalities Assembly (Amyotha Hluttaw) and about 900 seats in the 14 state/regional assemblies. However with 25% of the seats in each of these assemblies reserved for the military, the seats up for grabs get reduced to 330, 168 and 665 respectively. Each voter will be casting a vote for each of these three assemblies.
It is estimated that more than 50% of the country’s population of about 57 million will be eligible to vote in this election. The number of constituencies 330 (440-110 reserved) in the lower house roughly corresponds to the number of townships in the country. The electoral system to be followed is the one in which the candidate who receives the most votes in a constituency is declared the winner (“first past the post”).
According to an election commission notification, there are 37 political parties eligible to compete in the forthcoming election. There are a few independents also in the fray. Of the 37 parties, 22 are ethnic parties which are likely to make some impact in their respective regional areas and not at the centre.
NLD, the main opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is boycotting this election. NLD along with four other ethnic parties have been officially declared (by the election commission) as dissolved, for failing to register as a political party in accordance with the election laws for this election. Aung San Suu Kyi has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court challenging the dissolution of the NLD but it is unlikely to be decided in her favour.
The two parties that have the full backing of the military regime are the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP). A number of military officers serving as ministers and officials in the government have shed their uniforms to join the USDP and contest. As per media reports the USDP will be fielding 1171 candidates (for all the constituencies) and the NUP (975), targeting all states and divisions while all the other parties will be fielding much less candidates and that too in selected areas.
Of the political parties with democratic credentials, the National Democratic Force (NDF), which is the breakaway faction of the NLD, is the biggest in terms of strength and the number of seats being contested. The NDF along with five other like minded parties have formed an alliance and have appealed to the people not to boycott the elections (as recommended by the NLD) and have planned a joint effort for restoration of democracy.
The ethnic armed groups have been under pressure for over a year to transform into Border Guards under the Myanmar Army and to form their own political parties to contest in the elections. Except for a few, most of the groups have refused this offer and negotiations have also failed. These ethnic groups have floated some proxy parties or supporting some of the parties from their region. Seeing that 22 out of the 37 registered parties are ethnic parties, there is a great potential for these parties to get into the regional parliaments to help improve their lot.
Notable ethnic parties are the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) contesting 157 constituencies in Shan, Kachin & Kayah States, the Rakhine Nationals Progressive Party fielding 45 candidates and the Chin National Party fielding 23 candidates. The fact that the regime backed USDP and NUP have their own proxy ethnic parties in the various states must be taken into account as these proxy parties have a distinct edge over the others.
Military in Civies:
The military regime had chalked out a long drawn strategy to continue its dominance even after a transition to civilian rule though elections. A National Convention, formed in 1993 to draft a Constitution, took almost 15 years for the task. The members of the convention were hand picked and the main opposition parties had opted out of it after sometime as they had virtually no say in the proceedings. The constitution of 2008 was so framed that the military continues to be powerful in running of the state with 25% the seats reserved for the military in both houses of parliament at the centre and in the regional legislatures. Finally the election laws promulgated in March 2010 were so restrictive to preclude the opposition patties to have a fair chance to participate in the elections.
At the functional level the military regime dissolved the 24 million strong mass social organisation Union Solitary Development Association (USDA) and made it into a political party with the name Union Solidarity Development Party to contest the elections. Prime Minister Thein Sein and a score of other military officers have shed their uniforms to join the party and contest the election to garner 40 to 50% of the seats in addition to the 25% reserved for the military.
There are media reports to suggest that the regime backed parties are provided funds and other facilities to campaign while the other political parties are harassed by the police, intelligence and by the media censorship organisations in restricting their campaigning process.
Ethnic Groups Unwilling to Disarm:
The major setback for the military regime in this process has been its inability to disarm the ethnic Groups, transform them into border guards and make them contest as political parties. Despite repeatedly postponing the deadlines for this process, the regime has neither disbanded them legally nor resorted to military confrontation with these groups. It is widely believed that China had a role to play in mediating between the regime and the ethnic groups especially in the borders with China. The regime has put this issue in the cold storage with a view to revive it after the dust settles down after the elections. However the military regime has withheld the election in some townships of these troubled areas in the states of Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon and Shan (including four townships in the Wa self administered division) for the reason that “the election will not be held in several constituencies where free and fair elections could not be held”.
Countering Negative Publicity:
To counter the negative publicity on the elections in the western media and to placate the international community, the military regime is making some moves. It was announced that Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to vote, to dispel the propaganda that she has been debarred. An AFP report of 10 October indicates that 11000 prisoners will be released prior to elections to help them vote. However it is not clear as to whether this number includes the 2200 odd political prisoners languishing in jails.
At the diplomatic level Senior General Than Shwe made a visit to India, China and Laos to get their endorsement for the elections to counter the negative propaganda on the elections in Western media.
United States, European Union and ASEAN have been harping that the elections should be more inclusive, Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisioners must be freed and the election conducted in a free and fair manner. While India took a neutral stand, China was very vocal in supporting the process and also implored upon the western nations to desist from undermining the elections, which is purely an internal matter.
Quotes on Elections:
“The elections set for November 7 in Myanmar are a travesty of democracy – but welcome none the less” Philip Bowring, International Herald Tribune.
“By holding an election to legitimise decades of military rule, Myanmar’s power-hungry generals may have inadvertently created a framework for a democratic system they might not be able to control” Martin Petty (Reuters).
“Of course the election won’t be free and fair, but there is a change here that overtime more political space will be created” David Steinberg, George Town University.
“The election might help with the overall civilianisation of the government and so lead to slightly wiser economic policies” Josh Kurlautzick US-based Council on Foreign relations think tank.
“In the short term, it seems possible, if not likely, that the elections will strengthen Burma’s current political elites and produce an orderly succession form Than Shwe to a new generation of autocrats-regardless of the size of the boycott” Arnold Corso, The Irrawaddy 07 October 2010.
Once the elections are over, the parliament must be convened within 90 days from the date of the election.
The president will be elected in a joint session of both the lower and upper houses and two vice-presidents will be elected from the unsuccessful presidential aspirants. One of the vice-president is likely to be from the ethnic groups.
Future plans of Senior General Than Shwe have not been revealed. Will he continue to influence from within as President or as a Minister Mentor (like Lee Kuan Yew) or as an advisor from outside like Ne Win till his death? Despite manoeuvring to keep his loyal subordinates in power in key posts and precluding by law powers for the new government to try the military for any of its past actions, he must be apprehensive of the future.
Only time can tell as to how strong the opposition will be. Despite an alliance , more than one opposition party will be contesting the same seats, which will result in splitting the votes for the opposition and benefit the regime backed parties. With the predictions so far favouring the two proxy parties of the regime (USDP and NUP) and with all odds in their favour, the combined opposition must be considered successful even if it gains 25 per cent of the seats.
Even with all her charisma and popularity, the future of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party NLD is not very bright. The party, beleaguered over the years, now disbanded by law and with a faction contesting in the election against the party’s policy of boycotting, has an uphill task to regain the confidence of the people and resurface as a political force. But she cannot be written off.
Even though hopes of democratization may not materialise in the real sense of the term, most analysts are of the opinion that this transition will help in a more equitable economy and areas hitherto neglected such as agriculture, education and health will receive attention through better budget allocations.
The hopes of the ethnic groups for more autonomy or a federal type of government might have been dashed but the formation of the regional assemblies after the elections will help the ethnic groups in achieving a sense of participation in local governance with some economic benefits for their region and betterment of their own culture, language, education etc.
Many nations are waiting eagerly to lift the sanctions after elections and take advantage of the energy and natural resources that provide economic opportunities in Myanmar in spite of all the hue and cry on the human rights record of the country.
The saving grace will be that there will be a functional legislature in Myanmar irrespective of the fact that bulk of the law makers will be military personnel in civil attire.