Dreams of a democratic Myanmar with Aung San Suu Kyi as president should not blind us to the gritty reality of the country’s ongoing political transformation.
Today, Myanmar will go to the polls in what is ostensibly the country’s first free elections in 25 years. It promises to be another chapter in the country’s chequered political history.
In 1947 General Aung San fought for Myanmar’s independence, only to be assassinated months before the country’s first elections. The 1990 elections saw his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, win a landslide victory, only to have the results annulled by the ruling military junta.
The 2010 election (the fifth of a seven-step ‘roadmap to democracy’) was boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and saw the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) take power, with former-military general Thein Sein as President.
When it comes to elections in Myanmar two defining qualities hold true; they are contentious and impossible to predict, and Aung San Suu Kyi has a starring role. Today is set to be no different, with the historic ballot set to be shaped by several key details.
Firstly, and arguably most important to the international community, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become President. She is running for a seat in Parliament, and is likely to win, but she is constitutionally barred from the Presidency.
Secondly, incumbent President Thein Sein is not running for a seat in Parliament. Despite this, he could still have a second term as President.
The process of electing the President requires the Upper House (Amyotha Hluttaw), the Lower House (Pyithu Hluttaw) and the military bloc (guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in parliament) to each pick a candidate. From these three candidates, the full Parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) votes to elect the President and the remaining two candidates assume Vice-Presidential positions.
Beyond these two points, things get a lot hazier.
Despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be President or Vice President her NLD party has made no indications that it has a Presidential candidate from within its own ranks. Aung San Suu Kyi has been unwilling to share power and the party has openly said ‘there is no number two’. By default, the President is likely to come from the USDP or military.
It is also not a certainty that the NLD will win in a landslide, despite what many have predicted. In order for the NLD to control the Parliament, it will need to secure more than 67 per cent of all votes. This is an ambitious target given the popularity of ethnic parties and the religious-nationalist support for the USDP.
While the NLD may not secure a majority, it is almost certain that significantly more NLD and ethnic party politicians will be elected to Parliament than in the 2010 elections.
This means we are likely to see something resembling a coalition government, with ethnic party MPs commanding disproportionate amounts of power. The danger of a hung parliament is something Australians have come to understand well. In a foundling Parliament in a country plagued by corruption, civil war and communal violence, the risks are almost insurmountable.
A key factor in wrangling what will likely be a fractured and clunky parliament will be the appointment of the two parliamentary Speakers. There have been rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi may want a Speaker position for herself. She is not well suited to this role.
Aung San Suu Kyi does not like the capital Naypyitaw, travels frequently, is not details orientated and is notoriously stubborn. As Shwe Mann, former head of the USDP and current Speaker of the Lower House, has shown, Myanmar needs a committed and politically savvy Speaker who has a comprehensive understanding of the functions of Parliament and can work through Myanmar’s complicated legal system.
Beyond the practicalities of today’s elections and the administration of a new Parliament and executive, there is the uncontrollable and unpredictable public response to the results.
There will most likely be some incidents of violence and electoral tampering. These are unlikely to be the result of a central dictate from the USDP or the military. Powerful individuals in certain electorates will work to ensure their own, or their proxies’, election.
These incidents should not seen as undermining the election’s overall credibility, which looks set to be as ‘free and fair’ as possible. Domestic and international elections observers have been welcomed to oversee the elections for the first time in Myanmar’s history.
The major challenge to Myanmar’s electoral credibility will be public perception. This will be closely related to who is the President and how NLD supporters react to the realisation that despite voting for the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi will not be their President. The most important variable in this is Aung San Suu Kyi herself and how she handles the situation.
Australia has long supported Myanmar’s elections, providing support to the Union Election Commission (UEC). Our engagement with Myanmar is far less tied to Aung San Suu Kyi than other countries, particularly the US and the UK.
The US and the UK have powerful domestic lobby groups and particular Senators, Congressmen, Countesses, Baronesses and Lords with personal and historical interest in Myanmar. These interests result in US and UK foreign policies in Myanmar that are beholden to Aung San Suu Kyi.
US Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton has extolled Myanmar’s democratisation as a success of her time as Secretary of State. An important measure of the country’s democratisation has long been the personal success of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Australia does not have the same Aung San Suu Kyi allegiance. Accordingly, Australia will welcome a non-Aung San Suu Kyi President and, barring electoral failure, widespread unrest, or a military coup, Australia-Myanmar foreign relations will continue to be one of considered engagement and support.
Going into today it is important to separate the long-term goal of a liberalised Myanmar from the short-term dream of an Aung San Suu Kyi presidency.
If Myanmar’s history teaches us anything, dreams rarely come true and the gritty reality is more important.
Jacqueline Menager is a PhD candidate at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Myanmar.
This article forms part of New Mandala’s ‘Myanmar and the vote‘ series.