RANGOON — Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) on Friday secured the parliamentary supermajority it needs to select Burma’s next president, tallying enough wins to ensure that the country’s opposition will assume the mantle of ruling party in just a few months’ time.
The mammoth NLD victory in a historic nationwide poll that took place five days ago is both a rejection of the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and affirmation of a broad base of support for the NLD, or at least its popular chairwoman Suu Kyi.
While the NLD itself said as early as Tuesday that by its own count, the party had secured the necessary seats to elect the president, Friday’s noon announcement from the Union Election Commission (UEC) as good as cements it as a 2016 reality. Given the fact that the last NLD triumph at the ballot box was ignored by the former ruling junta in 1990, questions about the military’s willingness to accept the result will justifiably linger, despite assurances from the commander-in-chief that the outcome will be honored.
The supermajority brings into clearer focus, albeit only marginally, how the next three months will play out. While a less commanding victory by Burma’s main opposition party would likely have forced the NLD to the negotiating table with some of the country’s smaller ethnic parties, the latest release of election results gives the NLD 348 seats in the Union Parliament, meaning its MP-elects have the majority they need to go it alone, if necessary.
Out of a maximum 657 votes in the national legislature, a 329-seat majority is required to choose the president, with the newly elected parliamentary class expected to convene for the vote sometime in February or March.
This week brought an almost uninterrupted stream of good news for the NLD, with daily UEC announcements of the latest election returns pushing the party ever closer to the Union Parliament threshold required to choose the president. Thousands of supporters gathered outside the NLD headquarters in Rangoon to watch the first results come in on Monday night, the sea of red-clad celebrants clogging traffic as party anthems blared and vote tallies were broadcast on a big-screen erected for the occasion.
US President Barack Obama phoned the opposition leader on Thursday to congratulate her on the party’s success at the polls. Obama, who made house calls to Suu Kyi’s residence on both of his visits to Burma in 2013 and again last year, “commended her for her tireless efforts and sacrifice over so many years to promote a more inclusive, peaceful, and democratic Burma,” the White House said.
As plaudits pour in from around the world and Burma’s ruling party and military establishment continue to adjust to the new political landscape, the question now becomes: With Suu Kyi barred from assuming Burma’s highest elected office, who will be the nation’s next president?
Constitutional Collision Course
It could be more than 130 days before a new government takes power, leaving a protracted transition period that Suu Kyi has flagged as exceptionally long among democracies globally.
“Nowhere else in the world is there such a gap between the end of the election and the forming of the new administration, and certainly it’s something about which we should all be concerned,” she told reporters at a Nov. 5 press conference at her lakeside villa in Rangoon.
For all the clarity that the supermajority brings, it also would appear to make friction between the NLD chairwoman and Burma’s powerful military all the more likely, and could render prospects for a smooth transition less certain. Suu Kyi has positioned herself as president, in all but name, of any NLD-led government; in her press conference last week, she said she would be “above the president,” should her party secure the votes needed to select the country’s next chief executive.
For anyone unfamiliar with Burma’s Constitution, the remark might have elicited a quizzical look. But for those aware of the implications of the charter’s Article 59(f)—including the military elite who are believed to have written the provision with her in mind—it is a direct challenge to the document’s legitimacy as a framework for governance.
Article 59(f) states that individuals whose children or spouse “owe allegiance to a foreign power” cannot assume the presidency, precluding Suu Kyi because her late husband and children hold British passports.
The charter’s preceding article, meanwhile, casts doubt on Suu Kyi’s ability to be “above the president” and still toe the constitutional line.
“The President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar takes precedence over all other persons throughout the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” it states.
The coming weeks are sure to be heavy with speculation over who the NLD chairwoman will choose to effectively serve as a puppet in her shadow government.
Suu Kyi herself has been the epitome of coy when asked who might serve as her stand-in, saying only that the president would “be told exactly what to do” by “the party,” with little doubt that this means on her orders. Asked by a reporter last week about how she intended to circumvent the constitutional hurdle to lead the next government, Suu Kyi replied: “Oh, I have already made plans,” without elaborating.
Political prognosticators in the lead-up to the vote have tried to forecast scenarios that might play out post-Nov. 8. While the kind of resounding victory that the NLD is headed toward had certainly been offered up as a possibility, a dearth of reliable information on voter sentiment, uncertainty over how big a role identity politics would play at the ballot box, and widespread skepticism about the election’s credibility had combined to make an NLD landslide only one of several plausible outcomes.
Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, who has cultivated a working relationship with Suu Kyi and had been considered a potential presidential contender, would appear to be entirely out of the running at this point, after losing favor within his own party earlier this year and then failing to win the majority’s vote even in his native Phyu Township on election day.
Shwe Mann, President Thein Sein and Burma Army commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing have all agreed to meet with the opposition leader at her request, though a date for that dialogue has yet to be decided. Regardless of when and where, the question of presidential succession is guaranteed to be a major point of discussion, and an amicable exchange of views would appear advisable, given that the military will maintain an enduring post-2015 role in Burma’s politics despite the NLD victory.
Though the NLD looks almost certain to win enough seats in both chambers of the national legislature to pass laws without needing to court other parties’ votes—and in the process effectively neutering the military’s constitutionally guaranteed 25 percent bloc of unelected lawmakers on legislative matters—Min Aung Hlaing or his successor will still select ministers for three of the country’s most powerful and pervasive portfolios, covering home affairs, defense and border affairs.
Its one-quarter allotment of seats in Parliament means the military also holds a veto over constitutional change, a major plank of the NLD’s election campaign.
The UEC has pledged to deliver full election results within two weeks of the Nov. 8 vote, and totals could come as soon as Sunday.
Friday’s noon announcement added 21 seats to the NLD’s Lower House contingent, pushing its Union Parliament total past the supermajority threshold after it came up just short on Thursday night, sitting at 327 seats as of 9 pm.