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Burma: By-Elections And The National League For Democracy (NLD) – Analysis

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By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“There are differences in the party. I personally disagreed with the NLD running for parliament, but she (Aung San Suu Kyi) wants to take the initiative and she accepts that without the military’s cooperation, political change isn’t possible”. – Win Tin, a senior NLD leader and long time aide to Suu Kyi.

Introduction

The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi was founded on 27 September 1988 in the aftermath of the 1988 democracy uprising. In the first election the party took part in 1990, it had a landslide victory by securing 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats. However the results were ignored and the military junta did not allow the parliament to be convened. The subsequent elections held in November 2010 after two decades of military rule was boycotted by the NLD because the 2008 Constitution and the election laws were so restrictive and were against the norms of democracy. The party was declared illegal and ordered to be disbanded by the government in May 2010.

Burma
Burma

Since a nominally civil government came to power in March 2011, there has been regular interaction between President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi from August 2011, and the NLD has re-registered for taking part in the by-elections scheduled to be held on 01 April 2012.

On 10 January 2012, the NLD Central Executive Committee named Aung San Suu Kyi as the new party chairperson. The party is being revamped with a reorganised central executive committee with younger people and a new patron committee to accommodate the ageing leaders.

By-Elections

The Union Election Commission (UEC) announced on 29 December 2011 that the by-elections will take place on Sunday April 01, 2012 and notified the constituencies that will have vacant seats. The by-elections are for 48 seats – 40 in the lower house, 6 in the upper house and 2 in the regional/state assemblies. Most of these seats have fallen vacant because of the MPs who have become ministers and deputy ministers in the government. The UEC announcement also indicated that all candidates must register between 16 -31 January 2012.

The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi

The NLD is not what it was in 1990. In these two decades, the party has lost its significance and direction because of its ageing leadership, incarceration by the military junta, Suu Kyi under detention or house arrest for long periods, internal dissension due to boycotting the 2010 elections and the official disbandment of the party by the Government.

The decision taken in March 2010 by the Central and Executive Committee to boycott the 2010 elections was influenced by her personal opinion though she repeatedly insisted that the party should decide on its own. Though the majority was for the boycott, there were dissensions resulting in a breakaway faction called the National Democratic Force taking part in the elections. The boycott had in a way helped the military junta and had also disappointed the common public. After being disbanded, the party by its social welfare and cultural activities could not make any appreciable impact on the masses.

Aung San Suu Kyi, since her release on 13 November 2010, has adopted a conciliatory approach towards the military and the “civilian” government formed in March 2011. Though the civilian government has some vested interests in regular interaction with her and in amending the laws for registration of political parties to enable the NLD to re-register, she has played a major part in reviving the fortunes of the party. She has displayed considerable faith in President Thein Sein (a former general) and is optimistic (though cautiously) in joining the current political set-up. Some people still question whether it is a “kiss of death” by Thein Sein .

Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders fulfilled the registration formalities at Naypyidaw on 23 December 2011 and the Union election Commission approved the party’s registration on 5 January 2012. The NLD Central Executive Committee is under the process of finalising the candidates. The NLD has announced that it will be fielding candidates for all the 48 seats up for grabs.

Aung San Suu Kyi will be contesting from the Kawhmu constituency (in the outskirt of Rangoon).

As part of the strategy of the party for the by-elections the party has initiated the following steps:

  • Aung San Suu Kyi has been made the chairperson of the NLD CEC.
  • Tin Oo has been made the chairperson of the NLD Patron Committee.
  • The selection criteria of candidates have been spelt out. Many fresh faces including younger people and female candidates are being inducted
  • The party will be publishing the first edition of its new “D-Wave” journal on 16th January 2012.
  • The NLD decided on the party symbol – image of a fighting peacock craning towards a white star. The previous party symbol of a bamboo hat was used by National Democratic Force (NDF) –a breakaway faction of the NLD in the 2010 election.
  • Applications for membership in the party have been distributed to states and regions to boost up the strength of the party and help in campaigning for the by-elections.

There have been mixed reactions on the NLD’s (Aung San Suu Kyi’s) decision to re enter the political arena. Some of the criticisms levelled are:

  • NLD’s decision to rejoin electoral politics is being viewed by some as a capitulation after years of resistance to military rule.
  • Her leverage in Myanmar’s political arena will remain limited as long as the army continues to dominate parliament.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi is being used as her participation (more than the NLD’s) will help the government maintain a veneer of legitimacy.
  • With Suu Kyi holding a parliament seat, a stronger opposition alliance will emerge though how far the government will heed the demands of the opposition is a big question.
  • While appreciating her willingness to compromise, she is being criticised for hoping to have a fair deal from the government filled with untrustworthy military officers.

News Analysis

Despite the assurances of the election commission for a free and fair by-election, the political parties and the general public are sceptic on the likely conduct of the election.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to contest the election has given a big boost to the confidence of the government and the impact is already being felt by the stream of visits by foreign dignitaries and businessmen. Some countries have already started the process of easing sanctions.

After two decades of hibernation, internal dissension and withering of the ageing leadership, it is an uphill task to reorganise the party machinery to regain the status it had in the 1990 elections.

The NLD will be at a disadvantage for campaigning without the aid of independent newspapers, television or radio, though the internet will be used extensively for contacting the urban population.

There are hopes and expectations that her charismatic presence in the parliament will galvanise the parliamentarians from the USDP and the military to work with her for the development of the nation. Perhaps this is a great expectation.

A tricky situation has arisen with the breakaway faction of the NLD called the National Democratic Force fielding candidates against the NLD in 17 parliament seats as per a media report. The NDF leader while welcoming the NLD’s decision expressed his reservations on the NLD’s ability to change and cautioned against the over-optimism of Suu Kyi in this process.

Since the number of seats in the by-elections constitutes less than 15% of the parliamentary seats, the NLD, even if it wins all the seats, will not able to make any dent on the pre-dominance of USDP (along with the reserved seats of the military) in the parliament. But if the NLD sweeps or wins a majority of vacant seats, there will be an impact on the political situation.

The election and the results should be seen as a precursor to 2015 general elections. It is a fresh lease of life for the NLD to re-emerge on the political scene as Myanmar’s main opposition party.

Aung San Suu Kyi has taken a big gamble. Our sympathies are with her. Will her efforts bear fruit? It is also a test for democracy in Myanmar.

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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