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Richard Horsey: ‘It’s Very Clear the NLD Will Be the Largest Party’

Seasoned Burma watcher Richard Horsey on what to expect from Sunday’s vote, and the prospects and challenges facing the next government.

Richard Horsey is a former International Labour Organization representative to Burma now working as an independent political analyst and adviser to the International Crisis Group. He recently spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Zwa Moe and Kyaw Phyo Tha about what observers can expect from Burma’s upcoming election.

How is the upcoming election different from the 1990 election?

So despite what the history books have recorded, the 1990 election was by no means free and fair. Most of the opposition leaders were under house arrest or in prison at that time. But of course, as we know, the result was heavily in favor of the NLD [National League for Democracy]. What that means is that the 2015 election could be the first relatively credible election since 1960, and, if all goes well, it will be the first transfer of power in Myanmar through an election since 1960. So that makes it a very big deal. It’s also the first election since 1990 where the opposition has participated nationwide.

Many Burmese people and voters have big concerns that this election will not be free and fair, and whether the current government will honor the result of the election. Do you have any similar concerns?

I think it’s understandable that people will worry about this, given the history of what happened in 1990, but Myanmar is a very different place today, and the political environment is very different than in 1990. Most importantly, the Constitution which is now in force guarantees a political role for the military, and it guarantees a certain number of prerogatives over security ministries and seats in parliament, and this makes it much less risky from their [the military’s] point of view to transfer power. So I believe that they have had a long time to plan for this moment, and I believe that they have planned very carefully, and that means that a coup or a failure to respect the election results, in my view, is very unlikely.

I think it’s important to realize that not only formal power but informal political power in this country is largely still in the hands of the military and therefore that any incoming president or administration, including one which is led by the NLD, will have to come to an accommodation with the military. The military has given up a lot of political power, but it retains still a lot of political power, and in practice it will be impossible for any civilian president in this country to actually govern the country without some support from the military. They [the military] control the home affairs ministry, the police, the general administration department, and they have a significant influence in lawmaking.

What will happen in the aftermath of the election?

The Constitution provides for a very, very long transition period. It’s five months between the election and when the next administration will actually take over at the end of March. This is maybe a good thing and also a bad thing. It gives time for the political system to adjust to the new realities, but it also gives the losers—because there are winners and losers in every election—time to think long and hard about what they’re going to do about it. I would see that five month-period as one of great uncertainty. It will not be immediately clear from the results who will be the president or what the new administration will look like, and that will lead to all kinds of questions and concerns and nervousness. There will be a very long period of horse-trading, of political uncertainty, and hopefully, it will not be a period of political unrest.

There are 91 parties contesting the election, including the main two parties—the NLD and the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party]. Which party do you think will win a majority?

It’s very hard to say what the precise outcome will be. There are no opinion polls, and in a first-past-the-post election, even with opinion polls, it’s very hard to translate perceptions of popularity to seats won. So this is going to be very hard to know.

Assuming that there is no major fraud in the election, I think it’s very clear that the NLD will be the largest party in parliament, probably by quite a long way. Whether it will have 51 percent of the parliamentary seats, which would require a two-thirds majority of the elected seats, that I think is unclear. But in any case the NLD does not require 51 percent of the seats to run the country, to form an administration. Probably around 40 percent of the parliament will be enough to select the president in a three-candidate race.

If the NLD doesn’t perform as well as they expect, what do you think will happen?

I think the results will inevitably disappoint some. The NLD, I think, is expecting another landslide, a 1990-style landslide. That will be difficult because ethnic parties are stronger, the distribution of seats is different—there are more seats in the ethnic areas—so I think it will be exceptionally difficult to repeat their 81 percent of seats that they got in 1990. The USDP, I think, still feels that it may avoid a total defeat, and I think its expectations are probably too high. And the ethnic parties believe that they can form a significant bloc, and while there’s no doubt that they will do well in those areas, vote-splitting is a real risk to those parties, given the number of ethnic parties contesting and the mixture of different ethnicities in different constituencies.

So I think it’s inevitable that one or more groups is going to come out of these results feeling that they didn’t get quite what they wanted, possibly all groups will feel they didn’t quite get what they wanted, but if the NLD does become the biggest party, it’s going to be very hard for its disappointment to be leveraged into political action because it’s very hard to run a narrative that your election has been stolen when you’ve won. It’s much easier to run that narrative if you lose. And I think it’s very clear: If the NLD becomes the largest party in parliament, there will be celebrations—“We did it!” At the same time, to try to say, “Well, yes, but we didn’t do by as much as we thought,” that’s not going to be something that can be politically leveraged, I think.

Do you think military leaders, especially Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, are willing to talk to Suu Kyi?

If the NLD is able to select the president of this country, I don’t see how the military can avoid having a relationship and a discussion and a negotiation with the NLD and with the future president.

But Suu Kyi recently said that the government excluded her from the peace process.

[Suu Kyi] was invited to the nationwide ceasefire signing ceremony. She declined to attend, and her party representative there declined an invitation to be a domestic witness…I think what this demonstrates is that there is not a good collaboration between the NLD and the government around peace issues. As to why that happened, I think that’s a very difficult question. At least part of the answer may be that she has a different view about how a peace process should go, but it may also be that this is politics. A future administration, an opposition, does not give unqualified support to everything that a sitting government does, and she may well have been thinking about whether she wanted to support one of the top political priorities of the current president.

If the NLD wins a majority, what are the prospects for the peace process?

The first thing is that no president in this country can deliver peace without the Tatmadaw. So it comes back to the relationship between an NLD administration and the military. That will be the most important thing.

Second is what policies and approaches she will take to the political dialogue, because now we are really in the political dialogue phase. It may be very difficult for the elected government to offer the same concessions to the armed groups as the current government was able to do, so I’m thinking of federalism and resource-sharing. That is, giving away some of the political and economic strength from the center to the periphery. This will not be an easy thing to achieve, especially for an elected government, because of course questions will come from the support base of any national party, and the support base is the Burman majority—“Why are we giving away such political power and such economic resources to the minorities?”

Officially, only eight ethnic armed groups agreed to sign the “nationwide” ceasefire agreement (NCA). The main reason is lingering distrust between those armed groups and the government. Do you think that a real civilian government will be able to trust armed groups, irrespective of the military relationship with those groups?

In a ceasefire agreement, the military is the most important institution, and so the trust to sign the NCA needs to be between the armed groups and the military, the trust that this will bring some concrete benefits in terms of demilitarization of ethnic areas and in terms of a possibility to move forward with political talks. So I think all the armed groups agree that a political dialogue is what they want to achieve, and all of the armed groups that have been invited to be a part of the process agree with the text of the NCA.

But beyond that, for the political dialogue to be successful will require a very difficult coordination of different powerful stakeholders—the government, the military, the armed groups, the ethnic political parties that will be given a big boost as a result of this election as credible representatives of their people, and the communities. All of these people have a voice. And the people who have been mostly left out of the peace process so far are the Burman majority. They have not had a big voice in the peace process, and that’s critical, because if you’re going to achieve constitutional change which rebalances political and economic power away from the center toward the periphery, the one group who will have the biggest say in this is the Burman majority. And if they’re not convinced that there’s a good reason for them to do so, it will be very difficult for any government to achieve those kinds of changes. That’s the big challenge.

If the NLD can form the next government, do you see any kind of difference or improvement in the peace process?

I think it’s very difficult to say. As I said, the most important thing will be the relationship between the new government and the military. Without a good relationship there, it will be impossible, firstly, to deliver on the commitments in the ceasefire process, but, secondly, to convince the armed groups that they should be agreeing, because if it seems the government is offering something the military will not follow up on, it’s going to be very hard to create trust. And already there has been some suspicion, even in the current administration when the relationship between the president and the commander in chief has generally been very good, among some armed groups that the military is not fully supportive of the process.

As a longtime observer of Burma issues, have you seen any positive developments beyond the election?

If the election is credible, it will be a major milestone in this transition that Myanmar is going through, which will take a very long time. This is a generational transition, after six decades of conflict, four or five decades of authoritarian rule. If this election can be credible, if there is a transfer of power through an opposition victory, this will convince many people internationally, and I think some domestically, that Myanmar is really changing, and this will accelerate international relations, outside support, and can galvanize domestic changes also. I am optimistic for the future of Myanmar.