With Burma’s general election just two months away, there is one simple question on nearly everyone’s mind: Who will be the winner? But as with many questions in Burma, the answer is rarely as simple as one might hope.
Given both parties’ strength and popularity among voters, at first glance the Nov. 8 general election looks set to see a fierce competition between the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In other words, a game pitting legions of former generals—who have for the last four-plus years presented themselves as “the people’s elected representatives,” courtesy of a rigged 2010 vote—against the NLD as led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a 70-year-old Nobel laureate known at home and abroad as the face of Burma’s democratic struggle.
The number of candidates both parties are fielding also makes a compelling argument that, at a nationwide level at least, the November vote is essentially a two-horse race. The NLD tops the list of candidate submissions to the Union Election Commission (UEC), with 1,151 candidates in total, followed by the USDP at 1,134 parliamentary hopefuls, according to the commission. Up to 1,171 seats are at play nationwide.
With Suu Kyi’s popularity, much prognostication surrounding the election outcome has not been about which party will emerge victorious, but rather just how thoroughly the NLD will dispatch its incumbent rival.
Despite recent controversy over the opposition party’s top-down candidate selection process, which had words like “authoritarian” being thrown around to describe the NLD chairwoman, Suu Kyi remains a towering figure in Burma’s political arena. She still receives a “rock star” reception wherever she goes, with her rallies consistently resembling a “political Woodstock” attended by thousands of adoring supporters.
No amount of money or military might is capable of turning out the crowds that Suu Kyi’s presence has induced without fail.
With all this in mind, is the NLD headed for a landslide victory, as the party secured in a 1990 election that was ignored by the ruling junta of the time?
As likely as not, the answer is no.
During the 1990 election, only 36 ethnic parties competed, compared with the 55 that have registered with the UEC to contest the upcoming poll. The complexities of Burma’s ethnic mélange cannot be discounted, with many pockets on the country’s peripheries where ethnic minorities have long detested “Burman chauvinism.”
Though the NLD will field many ethnic minority candidates who are reflective of the ethnic demographics of their constituencies, it will have difficulty shedding the widespread perception that, at its heart, it is a party of and for the country’s Burman majority.
That could have implications for election day and beyond, when three vice presidents will be chosen and, from that trio, a president who will go on to form the next government.
Assuming the USDP and military lawmakers—who are constitutionally guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats—will vote for the president as a unified bloc, the NLD has a much steeper climb than the ruling party to reach the threshold required to elect the chief executive without having to form a coalition. While the NLD must win more than two-thirds of elected seats in order to assure that it picks the president, the USDP only needs one-third of those seats, with the luxury of being able to rely on appointed military lawmakers to fall in line with the ruling party’s presidential pick.
(Burma’s president is chosen not by popular vote, but by lawmakers in Parliament. Suu Kyi remains constitutionally barred from the office, but she has said her party intends to put forward a presidential nominee.)
In the event that the NLD fails to achieve more than two-thirds’ representation in Parliament, myriad scenarios could unfold in the months following the vote, including not impossibly, the opposition party winning more than 50 percent of elected seats and still ultimately failing to determine who becomes Burma’s next president.
Shrewd dealing-making could see ethnic political parties tip the balance, or alternatively, a handful of parties friendly with—if not unequivocally proxies of—the ruling party could play spoiler to the NLD’s campaign for the Presidential Palace. Since two years ago, “collaborating with other parties if it’s for the good of the country” has been a USDP mantra.
Which brings us to the 90 political parties that are not the NLD or USDP.
With 763 candidate submissions, the National Unity Party, a proxy of the then ruling junta and the NLD’s main opponent in the 1990 election, is the third-largest party in contention this year. The newly formed National Development Party, led by former presidential advisor Nay Zin Latt, comes in a distant fourth, with plans to field 353 candidates. Rounding out the top six are the National Democratic Force (NDF), an NLD breakaway faction that contested the 2010 election, and the Myanmar Farmers Development Party, a political entity rumored to be a USDP proxy.
None of these parties has any real shot at forming a government on its own, but they cannot be dismissed as electorally irrelevant. The Myanmar Farmers Development Party, for example, claims to have cultivated a substantial following in the country’s agricultural heartland.
Given the significant gap in the thresholds that Burma’s two largest political parties must reach to avoid the need for coalition-building, ethnic parties and others that might entertain the prospect of backing a USDP presidential candidate could well imperil Suu Kyi’s executive ambitions.
Sometimes, it is an accumulation of little things that can make a big difference.