Larry Diamond: ‘The USDP is Giving Itself an Electoral Handicap’

By Aung Zaw 17 August 2015

Stanford University democracy scholar Larry Diamond first spoke to The Irrawaddy in July 2012, discussing the country’s tentative democratic reforms after meeting with government representatives and civil society groups. Returning to Burma this month, Professor Diamond spoke with Irrawaddy founding editor Aung Zaw about the removal of Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann from the chairmanship of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the implications for the coming general election.

Two days ago, the influential Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann was demoted. He’s no longer chairman of the USDP. He’s still an MP and he’s still house speaker, but we don’t know how things will unfold in the coming weeks. The western press and local press described it as an ‘internal coup’ against Shwe Mann’s faction. What is your reading of this?

Well it certainly does have the feel of a coup, when there are military vehicles surrounding the home of a high-ranking government official, when the newspapers that are believed to be owned or controlled by that official are suddenly closed down, when people are suddenly purged or dismissed, or reported as having been allowed to resign. It has the feel of a coup.

It’s a reminder of the old days.

It’s not only a reminder in substance, it’s a reminder in style. It’s got a kind of authoritarian, heavy, militaristic feel to it, of being something that’s not in tune with the modern times, not in tune with the spirit of democracy, certainly not transparent. It came out of nowhere. It does certainly feel like some internal seizure of power within the party, what I guess you could call the ruling party, though the ruling party in reality in Burma is the military. But substantively, people I respect view it as a regression for the transition. It certainly seems to me to be a backward step for the transition, in several respects.

First, style matters. The authoritarian manner of this, the tone of this, the military movements surrounding the house and so on, it harkens back to a very much darker and, frankly, not that old period in the history of this country. It’s just a few years ago that this wasn’t such an unfamiliar thing.

Secondly, it is believed that Thura Shwe Mann was, what we call in the study of transitions a ‘softliner’, a moderate, more flexible, more willing to negotiate with the democratic opposition. He seemed to have a good relationship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and they seemed to be able to work together. That was actually a hopeful sign for the future. So the fact that he would be, in essence, purged from the party leadership, in what one can only assume—from the manner in which this has happened—a more thorough purge of Shwe Mann and his followers may be in the offing, that this isn’t finished and they’ll move in other ways. It does appear to be the kind of moment we have seen in other political transitions, when hardline elements of the regime assert themselves and try to gain an upper hand over more moderate and flexible elements.

So I think it’s worrisome in style, it’s worrisome in substance, and it’s worrisome because we don’t know yet what else is going to happen.

How is this going to have an affect on the elections? How are they going to perform? This election is supposed to be free and fair, but there is a fear that there will be a repeat of 2010.

Well I think there should always have been concern about the freedom and fairness of the November 2015 elections. There was not then, a week ago, or two weeks ago, or two months ago, or four months ago, and there isn’t today in the wake of this ‘mini-coup’ against Shwe Mann, any guarantee that the elections are going to be free and fair. But I think the logic of what’s happening now may underscore the threat to electoral integrity, and let me explain why.

Shwe Mann was a more flexible and moderate element of the political establishment. He was more willing to work with Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) and democratic elements. I mean, who can look into his heart and know how deep his convictions are in favor of moving in a democratic direction? You have to judge people by their behavior, but the behavior gave some hope to democratic elements, and certainly hope to Aung San Suu Kyi, that he was someone they could work with, and if they weren’t going to get to democracy through this partnership, they’d be able to have someone to work with to move the system further in this democratic direction. I think it’s pretty obvious that this is what the people of Burma want.

If the USDP has now jettisoned someone—who’s more flexible, more modern, and seemingly more democratic, someone who could work more with the NLD—and is replacing him and other candidates that he was trying to favor with more rigid, military figures, more hardline figures, people who are in fact only leaving the military now as we’re sitting here, then I think it is reasonable to assume that these candidates are going to be less appealing to their constituencies then the USDP candidates they’re replacing. So the USDP, in staging this internal coup, is giving itself an electoral handicap. That is, it is making it more difficult for the USDP to win a larger number of seats, and so you could ask the question, ‘why are they making it more difficult for themselves to have a reasonably good electoral performance?’ The answer some people might pose is, maybe they aren’t concerned about how well they’re going to appeal to the electorate, because they think they have other means of securing victory at the polls then the way people actually cast their ballots on election day.

President Thein Sein and his group would like to extend their time in office for a second term and may have felt they had no other choice than to remove the Shwe Mann faction. How will this affect Aung San Suu Kyi, who sought to form an alliance with Shwe Mann?

Well obviously it complicates her situation because she has lost a potential partner from within the regime. As Margaret Thatcher used to say about Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘He’s someone we can do business with.’ She wasn’t abandoning her principles, she wasn’t saying she loved moderate communists, she was saying, ‘Here’s a pragmatic guy, he’s flexible, I may not agree with everything he has done or is doing now, but we can do business with him, and I know if I strike a deal with him, he’ll deliver on it.’ I have a hunch that Aung San Suu Kyi has had that kind of relationship with Shwe Mann, and so now, that is interrupted. I do think that analysts of the Burmese transition will look back at what is happening now and what may be happening in the days ahead as one of the more important political developments during the transition period.

The irony is, it may in the context of the election make the USDP even less competitive and appealing to the public.

Unless they rig the vote…

Well, that is the alternative. But if there’s not large-scale electoral fraud, it may mean the NLD wins a larger victory than it might have before. If there is large-scale electoral fraud, it will rob the regime and President Thein Sein of the domestic and international legitimacy they’re looking for to have this transition move forward and be accepted. Frankly this is a very high stakes gamble they’re pushing.

What will the political landscape look like in 2016? Surely it will be very messy.

I’ll tell you probably one scenario that is almost funny in its irony. Assume that Shwe Mann is marginalized and maybe even expelled from the USDP. Assume that maybe they’ll find a way to strip him, not only of his speakership but of his membership of the parliament.

Maybe even some criminal charges?

Yes, but if they do that then they make a martyr out of him. It may actually make him stronger. In the wake of the election, unless they’re going to prosecute him, there’s nothing to prevent him from being elected president. But they’re not going to achieve very much in terms of the balance of power in 2016 by going after one individual, because if the NLD wins the elections—probably in alliance with some of the ethnic minority parties—then they can elect somebody else as president. Not Shwe Mann, not Aung San Suu Kyi, but possibly somebody else who might perform some of the same functions as Shwe Mann. That is somebody who at one time was in the regime, or perhaps served as a minister in the regime, or they can elect anybody in parliament. You know, if they have the numbers, the constitution does not require the commander-in-chief of the military to sign a letter approving the election of the president of the country.

The second part of The Irrawaddy’s interview with Larry Diamond will be published on Wednesday.