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COMMENTARY

In a Free Vote, the Ruling Party Faces Failure

The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party is likely heading for political oblivion come November—providing the vote is free and fair.


Burma’s ruling party is highly unlikely to win a majority in the upcoming election—provided it is free and fair. However, should their determination to rule outweigh commonsense, it may see no alternative but to engage in vote rigging.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), formed by the previous military regime, won more than 75 percent of seats in the 2010 election—a poll characterized by significant electoral fraud, particularly through the manipulation of advance votes.

When The Irrawaddy recently asked Union Election Commission chairman Tin Aye whether the USDP tampered with advance votes in 2010, he replied in the affirmative.

The ex-general and USDP member added, “I have records in my hands about how many individuals from which parties won the election with how many advance votes.”

The army-backed party was the only real contender in the 2010 vote, with the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), opting out and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, still under house arrest.

Tin Aye again was frank in his assessment of the election, telling The Irrawaddy in June that it “had lots of handicaps” and admitting it was a one horse race.

Now, as in 2010, there is no real reason to think the USDP will perform well unless it stacks the cards in its favor.

Take a look at the 2012 by-election, which the NLD and ethnic parties did contest, and which was widely regarded as free and fair.

The USDP only won a solitary seat in a constituency in which the NLD contender had been disqualified. The NLD rout saw them claim 43 of 44 seats contested.

Perhaps surprisingly, the NLD even won in all four constituencies up for grabs in the country’s capital Naypyidaw, where the concentration of civil servants and government officials may have suggested favoritism for the ruling party.

If the upcoming election is as free as the 2012 poll, the USDP will almost certainly struggle.

A History of Violence

Doubtless many of the country’s estimated 32 million eligible voters would remember well the USDP’s notorious backstory.

The USDP was born of the thuggish Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), formed by ex-junta head Snr-Gen Than Shwe in 1993. The group was believed to have partaken in attacks on opposition groups, including the NLD.

Among the most notorious such acts occurred on May 30, 2003 and would later become known as the Depayin massacre. USDA members together with vigilantes from the infamous Swan Arr Shin, attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade in a small village of Sagaing Division’s Depayin Township, killing dozens of NLD supporters.

Suu Kyi narrowly escaped harm while her party deputy Tin Oo was physically attacked. Both were subsequently jailed.

Several sources went on to implicate high-ranking regime officials in the deadly ambush.

In “The Lady and The Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi,” Peter Popham writes: “In November 1996, the secretary of the USDA, U Win Sein, who was also Minister of Transport, had told a meeting of villagers near Mandalay that killing Aung San Suu Kyi was their duty.

“‘Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the creator of internal political disturbances must be eradicated. Do you understand what is meant by eradicated?’”

Another book, “A Guide to Political Parties and Associations of Burma,” published in Burmese in 2013 and with research by Win Tint Tun, also referred to how the transport minister incited mobs to attack Suu Kyi.

Government employees and students were coerced into joining the USDA, which was implicated in several other attacks on peaceful protesters including during the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

It claimed to have more than 24 million members across the country. In 2010, only months before the election in November, the association was transformed into the USDP.

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‘Vote for the Flag’

The USDP today resembles the National Unity Party (NUP) of 25 years ago, that was formed as a proxy of the then ruling junta to contest the 1990 election. The party won only 10 seats in a poll that was annulled after the NLD won in a landslide.

The majority of voters then were not blind to the fact that the NUP was simply a rebranded offshoot of the Burma Socialist Programme Party that, under the dictator Gen Ne Win, ruled the country with an iron fist from 1962-88.

The ruling regime had counted on a strong showing, assuming that the vote would be split between the more than 90 competing political parties—denying the NLD a majority. Many Burma watchers agreed.

But they were proven wrong, with voters aware of the junta’s strategy of allowing dozens of political parties to compete. Voters backed the NLD because they wanted to see radical change in a country wracked by nearly three decades of military rule.

Voters just looked at the party’s fighting peacock flag, without regard to the individual candidate. Last week, Suu Kyi called on supporters in Naypyidaw to channel that same attitude of 25 years ago.

“Please vote for the flag of the NLD. I urge you not to vote by looking at the candidate, but by looking at the party,” she said.

“This is the same as my father [Aung San] said while campaigning before the country gained independence: ‘Vote for the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. Vote for the party that will work for independence.’”

Suu Kyi argues that her party can establish “clean government,” but even that vague message cuts through to Burmese voters who have long seen their unelected rulers as corrupt.

The majority of Burmese voters are unlikely to study the minutiae of parties’ economic or foreign policy platforms—providing they have one—but they are not so naïve to believe the USDP could shed its skin to become a party of transparency and democracy.

When it comes to “clean” government, voters have now heard the spin, but after the election they will expect results. Though there are many shortcomings to the NLD, many believe that the party are dedicated to bringing about genuine democratic reform.

But one question continues to cast a long shadow over the electoral process: will the military-backed USDP allow a victorious NLD to form government?

The current government will be desperate to retain a hold on the executive, whatever the outcome of the November vote, in order to continue to pursue its “reform” process. The military-dominated establishment will not easily allow the USDP to follow in the footsteps of the NUP’s effective demise.

In Aung San’s era, the struggle was for independence from colonial rule. Today, the struggle is for “liberty” from the military and its proxy party.