From the time polling stations close at 4 pm on Sunday, Burma will enter into a delicate, and mostly likely tense, political phase. Voters will be holding their breath as results filter through.
Even after a full electoral picture begins to take shape in the days following the vote, a period of backroom horse trading awaits before a new Parliament convenes in February and contenders for the presidency are put forward.
Since gaining independence in 1948, Burma has been beset by chronic problems of poor governance, civil war and corruption, magnified under almost five decades of military rule. The next government will have to grapple with this dire legacy.
As a priority, Burma’s new government in 2016 should promote national reconciliation—without it, key issues will go unresolved and the country is unlikely to move forward. As a guiding principle, the winning party should acknowledge that they cannot govern the country alone; collaboration across ethnic and party lines should be sought.
Will the ascendant political force be willing and able to reach out to all key stakeholders?
Key players will obviously hail from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), which is widely tipped to perform strongly in a credible vote.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has, on several occasions, signaled that an NLD-led government would not “seek revenge” but would pursue a collaborative course.
“Even if we win 100 percent, we would like to make a government of national reconciliation in order to set a good precedent for our country. It shouldn’t be a zero-sum game where winner takes all and loser loses everything,” Suu Kyi said at a final press conference before the election in Rangoon on Sunday.
The NLD chairwoman has been honing this message of reconciliation over the last few years, as shown by her willingness to participate in high-level talks with key leaders, including the president, army chief and parliamentary speakers.
Suu Kyi’s calls to effectively bury the past are significant and will not have gone unnoticed by the ruling party, filled with former generals linked to the previous military regime that disavowed an election 25 years ago and persecuted activists and opposition party supporters.
The military clearly harbors anxieties over the question of accountability for past abuses; hence the 2008 Constitution contains a clause which reads, in reference to the then-ruling regime:
“No proceedings shall be instituted against the said Councils or any member thereof or any member of the Government, in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties.”
If results indicate a strong NLD showing in the days following Sunday’s poll, Suu Kyi may begin work on an agenda of national reconciliation immediately. Although, beyond reference to a “government of national reconciliation,” the NLD leader has not elaborated on such efforts, she appears open and flexible in her approach.
Tough compromises may need to be made with top leaders, including the president and the commander-in-chief. If one side shuts the door completely, a period of instability and tension could ensue.
Thus far, unfortunately, signs on the part of the ruling establishment of a desire for post-election compromise have been few and far between.
However, President Thein Sein did appear to channel a spirit of cooperation in his regular radio address last week, saying that, “Beyond the election, we have to discuss and collaborate with all political leaders to create a new political atmosphere all political forces can accept.”
If this could be taken as an indication that genuine national reconciliation will be pursued in 2016, then the county’s future may look hopeful. But past experience would advise that constructive rhetoric alone is not indicative of the central government’s designs.
This Sunday’s election should serve as a bridge for genuine national reconciliation and not be simply viewed as a contest in which winner takes all.