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Dealing with Defeat: Where it All Went Wrong for the USDP

The depths of its unpopularity now clear, the ruling party will need to embark on some serious soul-searching if it wishes to retain political relevance.

Officials of Burma’s ruling party will be forced to embark on some serious soul-searching if they wish to remain relevant in Burmese politics.

The results of the Nov. 8 general election, in which the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won only 41 Union Parliament seats, showed in no uncertain terms the depths of the military-backed party’s unpopularity.

Why did the incumbents suffer such a resounding electoral defeat?

First and foremost, the USDP has no solid support on the ground. The Burmese public’s abhorrence of the former military regime runs deep and the ruling party is seen as inseparable from that authoritarian legacy.

The USDP’s forebear, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), was founded on the instructions of former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe in 1993. The organization gained a notorious reputation for engaging in activities suppressing Burma’s pro-democracy movement and was branded a “gang of thugs” in 1997 by National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi.

In 2003, USDA members were among the pro-junta group that violently attacked Suu Kyi’s motorcade in Sagaing Division in what became known as the Depayin massacre.

Despite his ostensible departure from public life, Than Shwe himself still casts a shadow over the Burmese political scene, with many believing he wields some influence over the current leadership.

It was this repressive legacy that many Burmese voters would have reflected on when casting a vote on polling day. In short, the ruling party is seen as largely filled with corrupt, incompetent and reactionary officials, despite the political opening under Thein Sein’s administration since 2011.

During the campaign period, these former generals turned politicians firmly demonstrated they had little feel for the public pulse, with the party’s pitch as the architect of Burma’s democratic reforms falling flat.

When Thein Sein went on to insinuate in one memorable speech in his hometown that Burma had experienced enough change (including the comment: “What more change do you want?”), the die was effectively cast.

In addition, the “nationwide” ceasefire agreement, which was meant to be a signature achievement of Thein Sein’s government, has been ridiculed.

Only eight non-state armed groups signed the pact with Naypyidaw in mid-October, with several major ethnic armies, including from Kachin and northern Shan states, withholding their support. Fighting in these areas has if anything only intensified after the accord, leading several ethnic armed factions to question the government’s willingness to pursue genuine peace.

Pre-Poll Discord

The party also struggled with disunity ahead of the poll. This was publically brought to the fore after former party chairman Shwe Mann was removed from his post in a late night coup brought on by a growing rift with President Thein Sein.

On the instructions of the president’s office, security personnel surrounded the USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw to ensure the swift removal of the current Union Parliament speaker, who had cultivated what observers saw as a constructive working relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Shwe Mann’s allies within the party did not entirely desert him. When an impeachment bill that could have been used to unseat the deposed party chairman came before Parliament on Aug. 20, lawmakers, apparently including Shwe Mann’s factional allies, voted to suspend discussions until after the election.

High-ranking officials such as newly minted party co-chair Htay Oo had supported passage of the bill and voiced displeasure at its deferral, lending credence to the portrait of a party riven by discord.

Speaking to Radio Free Asia recently, Thura Aung Ko, a former colonel in his 60s and a senior member of the USDP, admitted the party had been divided since Shwe Mann’s sudden ouster.

Interestingly, while other USDP leaders talked up the party’s chances in the lead-up to polling day, Shwe Mann publically admitted, “It will be very difficult to win.”

Barely a Whimper

When Thein Sein introduced political and economic reforms from 2011, he won the praise of observers both domestically and abroad. The NLD was a beneficiary of the political opening, winning over 40 seats in an April 2012 by-election.

However, lingering doubts over the government were never fully dispelled. Leaders grew adept at saying the right things, but failed to deliver. The relationship between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, far from cozy to begin with, appeared to further wane.

Many activist groups also suspected that powerful officials were involved in funding and supporting radical Buddhists, namely involved with the Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha, and fueling anti-Muslim sentiment.

Burmese people thought enough was enough.

The NLD waged a simple but effective campaign, based on the time-worn slogan of change. This was a message the majority of voters could relate to; a message not based on fear, but hope for the future.

Since 1988, when a pro-democracy uprising took hold around the country before it was brutally suppressed by the military regime, millions of Burmese have invested their hopes in Suu Kyi and the NLD.

In stark contrast to popular, charismatic figures in the pro-democracy movement, from Suu Kyi to 88 Generation student leaders such as Min Ko Naing, the USDP had no star power; no leader the public would rally behind.

The NLD was also aided by broader sympathy within independent local media outlets and many Burmese civil society organizations, including prominent activists that have been part of the pro-democracy movement for over two decades.

During the campaign period, at the sight of tens of thousands of supporters clad in the NLD’s signature color red at political rallies around the country, many logically inclined USDP officials must have at least considered a looming defeat.

Now the scale of that loss has been tallied, the party’s future is in doubt.