Whatever fleeting, slender hopes Aung San Suu Kyi had of maneuvering her way into the presidency next year are now dashed.
“People are now crystal clear about who they have to support,” she told media on Thursday, after the Union Parliament declined to support a referendum proposal to alter a constitutional clause that bars her from the nation’s highest office.
The Burma Armed Forces, which are allocated a quarter of parliamentary seats, have likewise demonstrated they are not willing to meekly surrender their political power. A vote on removing the effective military veto over constitutional amendments was also struck down on Thursday, albeit in a tighter contest.
Certainly both Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were under no illusions about the likelihood of success. From here, they hope the vote will galvanize their support base into a strong outcome in this year’s election. With one in every ten people in Burma signing petitions in support of charter reform last year, their expectations are not unreasonable.
“The public will now clearly understand who wants change and it will help the public to clearly decide whom they should vote for in the election,” she said of Thursday’s vote.
As many media outlets have acknowledged, the events in Naypyidaw this week signal the end of the battle—if not the war—in the fight to democratize Burma’s charter. What has not been acknowledged is that Thursday’s vote also takes the NLD’s most concrete policy off the agenda for some time to come.
For years, the party has publicly offered vague pronouncements on human rights and the rule of law instead of firm proposals on education, healthcare, foreign investment, ethnic issues and any number of critical issues facing the country’s future. This was echoed in the NLD’s executive committee meeting in Rangoon last weekend, when the party once again mused on the prospect of an electoral boycott. Suu Kyi told press there, at an occasion also commemorating her 70th birthday, that the party would finalize its candidate list once it had decided whether or not to contest this year’s poll—those hoping for a window into the NLD’s platform instead of a rehash of old debates were, once again, left wanting.
Suu Kyi and the executive committee made it clear last weekend that they are pinning their hopes to the sort of landslide the party enjoyed in the 1990 election, before the results were annulled by the junta and hundreds of NLD party members found themselves behind bars in some of the most horrific jails on the continent. More than ever, there are signs that these expectations won’t be matched. The adoption of proportional representation voting in the Upper House, and the rise of ethnic political parties, virtually guarantee that the NLD will have to negotiate to pass legislation if it secures government. Even if the NLD wins resoundingly enough to take the presidency next year, they will still have to make common cause with key ministers in the executive appointed by the military under the constitution. With the preservation of the military veto, any further charter reform will depend on delicate deliberations with the commander in chief.
It was a welcome move for the NLD to announce last weekend that it would require candidates to disclose their family assets for review. Suu Kyi said of the pledge that the NLD needed to show transparency to win public trust. We agree. Burma stagnated for decades as the well connected leeched untold billions from the economy; the refusal to countenance corruption and graft is a sorely needed commitment to a politics of integrity and public service.
We also hope the party’s commitment to transparency is affirmed through the release of detailed policies as the election nears. If Burma is to progress, it needs to move beyond the lingering trust deficit of the previous decades; The NLD, the single greatest moral authority in the country for the last 25 years, has a vital role to play in this arena.
Despite well-earned cynicism, the people of Burma want to believe that this time there will be a free and fair election, despite ominous signs of discrepancies in voter lists. They want to believe, despite the bitter experience of 1990, that an endorsement of the opposition will this time occasion a transfer of power. They want to believe, as the European Union said last week, that 2015 will be the year that Burma has the opportunity to confirm that the reforms of the last few years are indeed irreversible.
Suu Kyi has taken the constitutional reform with characteristic good grace. In the face of defeat, the prudent decision is to withdraw and regroup. It is our hope that the NLD’s senior leaders are now considering what Thursday’s vote means—for their own aspirations, for how they will govern, and for the years ahead—rather than wallowing in rancor. It is also our hope that they do this in dialogue with their supporters, detailing how they intend to govern in an imperfect parliament instead of refusing to acknowledge the realities of the flawed Constitution.
All free and fair elections the world over hinge on faith—faith in the pledges of a governing party, in the integrity of the system, and in the judgement of the electorate. For longer than many can remember, the NLD has asked the public for blind faith, promising that a vote for a change of government is a vote for a better future. As Burma prepares for what may be a seismic break from the past, now is the time for the NLD to reciprocate the faith of the nation.