As the National League for Democracy turns 29 today, The Irrawaddy revisits its 2013 commentary asking if the popular party still enjoys the overwhelming public support demonstrated in the 1990 election. Two years later in 2015, the NLD won a landslide victory again in the general election, and today it remains the most popular political party in the country.
Is the NLD still the people’s party? On this question, opinion in Burma varies, but the doubters are likely a small portion of the country’s estimated population of more than 50 million.
The NLD was founded by a group of prominent people in September 1988, including former Gen Tin Oo, veteran journalist Win Tin and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
But despite the existence of other co-founders, it is Suu Kyi who molded the party into what it is today. Without the 68-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the NLD would not have become so popular over the years of military rule.
In the historic 1990 election, the NLD received more than 80 percent of the vote, winning 392 of the 485 seats it contested in the 492-member assembly, including in ethnic areas. Suu Kyi wasn’t allowed to contest the election, as she was being held under house arrest at the time, but thanks to her role as a party leader, about 15 million Burmese—one third of the then-population—voted for the NLD.
An expression was widely shared during the election year: “Even a dog with its tail cut off will win, so long as it’s an NLD candidate.” While somewhat crude, the remark perfectly captured the level of popularity the party held among the people.
Of course, many former loyalists may no longer follow the NLD so blindly today, more than a year after she was elected to Parliament. But I believe that for the majority of people here in the country, little has changed since 1990. The NLD won 43 of 44 seats in Parliament in 2012 by-elections, including in all four constituencies of Naypyidaw, which is seen as a stronghold of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Still, not everything has gone smoothly for Suu Kyi since she entered Parliament. The opposition leader has faced unprecedented criticism over the past year for failing to strongly condemn the discrimination and violence by Buddhist mobs against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State. At the same time, she lost points with Buddhists in the state after walking a middle ground and refusing to take either side in the conflict. In north Burma’s Kachin State, the NLD leader also faced criticism after failing to blame the government when the Burma Army launched an offensive on ethnic Kachin rebels.
As Suu Kyi’s base of support declines, so too will that of the NLD. The opposition party faces other challenges as well, with critics saying that it lacks unity and remains disorganized. Some say the party has failed to develop strategic political plans.
But what alternative do we have to the NLD? The answer, at least for the moment, is that we have no alternative, especially in areas dominated by the ethnic Burman majority. The country has yet to see the emergence of any other popular nationwide party. And the majority of voters will not even consider supporting the ruling USDP, assuming the elections in 2015 are truly free, unlike the 2010 elections.
Some people had hoped that influential activists from the 88 Generation Students group would step into politics after being released from prison in early 2012. To date, however, the group, which is led by well-known activists Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, is still not sure whether to form a political party. And even if they do, their party will not be a real threat to an NLD victory in two years, because Suu Kyi’s popularity remains relatively strong.
Many people will vote for the NLD in 2015, as they did in the 2012 by-election, but the party will receive fewer votes in ethnic areas for two main reasons. In addition to Suu Kyi’s declining popularity, especially in Arakan and Kachin states, ethnic leaders have already established their own political parties, and more ethnic parties are expected to emerge in the future.
In 1990, the NLD won 71 percent of seats in eastern Karen State, 73 percent in Kachin State, 80 percent in Mon State and 50 percent in Karenni State. In Shan, Arakan and Chin states, it won 39 percent, 34 percent and 30 percent, respectively. The results will certainly be different the next time around.
Some critics say the NLD lacks enough capable intellectuals and politicians to effectively lead the country. For this reason, they call the NLD a “grassroots” party—a title which some party leaders would likely welcome, as an acknowledgment that they represent the people.
But to steer Burma in a positive direction, the NLD needs more capable, intellectual and talented leading members. And if it wants to win in a landslide, as it did in 1990, Suu Kyi seriously needs to reorganize the party and embrace the emergence of other, new leaders with different strengths in politics as well as other sectors. If she can contribute more to the peace process with ethnic groups in the next couple years, she might even see a resurgence of popularity in ethnic areas.
By and large, the democracy icon will likely remain the most popular and trusted candidate in the 2015 election, and her party, the NLD, will likely be supported by the majority of people, even with its shortcomings.