Analysis: By-Election Results Suggest Increased Role for Ethnic Parties in 2020

By The Irrawaddy 5 November 2018

In the wake of the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s modest success in the by-election on Saturday, The Irrawaddy talks to officials from some of the political parties that contested the election, as well as political commentators, to get their views on the outcome and where the NLD went wrong.

Yan Myo Thein, political commentator

If we consider the by-election to be a mock test, the NLD no doubt failed it. And the USDP’s [Union and Social Development Party’s] performance has improved to a certain extent. The likelihood of ethnic parties winning [elections] has also increased. In politics, underestimating your opponents is suicide.

Noticeably, the USDP won in Yangon’s Seikkan and Sagaing’s Tamu, constituencies previously held by the NLD. A similar outcome was seen in [Mon State’s] Chaungzon by-election last year.

The NLD needs to objectively review the by-election results with farsightedness, and make sweeping reforms of the government, Parliament and within the party before the 2020 election.

Again, the NLD should review how widely and effectively its lawmakers are working with the public, especially how much NLD lawmakers keep in touch with rural people and rally their support in townships outside Yangon. Also, people are not satisfied with the NLD, as their economic burden has not been relieved, but become even heavier.

The 2020 general election will surely become more closely contested between the NLD, USDP and ethnic parties. Ethnic parties, I think, will be much stronger by 2020, unlike the 2015 elections.

In particular, MPs elected from ethnic parties will play a more important role in the election of the president beyond 2020. Therefore, the NLD should think long-term and form strategic alliances with ethnic parties before 2020, and consider not running in ethnic constituencies. It should not contest constituencies where its allied parties plan to run, and should prepare to work with them as partners in forming the cabinet after the election.

U Thein Tun Oo, USDP spokesperson

The results fell short of our expectations [of winning all 10 of the seats the party contested]. So, this shows that we have to try harder. But we are happy that the ethnic parties have achieved a certain success. We will learn lessons from our experiences in the by-election and make the necessary changes. We will try by serving the interests of the people to win every election, which is the goal of every party. We expect to achieve a respectable result in 2020, and we’ll keep trying.

(The USDP won three of the 10 seats it contested in the Nov. 3 by-election. The three constituencies were previously held by the NLD.)

U Win Myo Thu, director of EcoDev Myanmar

It is undeniably the wish of everyone—including me—who wants our country to stand tall on the international stage to see the [NLD] remain the people’s party and provide political leadership for the unfinished processes of democratization and nation building. [The NLD] should seriously review what lessons to take [from the by-election]. In my opinion, there are a few lessons to learn.

First and foremost is the need to build democracy within the party.

There is a need to fight the practices of patronage and nepotism. There is a need to enable a merit-based system. That fact that those who are not even in the lower level executive committees are directly appointed to the Central Executive Committee goes against the rules. Democracy is based on rules. One has to follow the rules adopted by the majority. It seems that freedom of expression and freedom of criticism within the party have withered.

One of the reasons for the decline of democracy within the party is that the government has weakened the democratic forces. Its repression and control of the media and civil society organizations are worse than under U Thein Sein’s government. It has failed to systematically unite farmers and labor unions. And it has failed to keep in touch with those forces. As it refuses to listen to critical voices, it has been unable to bring about constructive changes.

Secondly, the party lacks programs to support the social wellbeing of the people.

In this nation building period, it is more important to improve the country than to rise against the dictatorship. It is important that the party collaborates with the government and Parliament, and that party members on the ground cooperate with other allied civil society organizations to fulfill the requirements of the people. The Daw Khin Kyi Foundation’s activities alone are not enough. To create public support programs, there is a need to organize a youth committee and support committee within the party and adopt systematic plans. The party can win public support if it serves the public interest. Such works can be a training ground for future leaders of the party. The problem is that those who would do so are viewed with suspicion and there is an effort to control them. Over-centralization is suicide. It can only become a real people’s party by serving the interests of people, and this has nothing to do with the party’s particular leader.

The third most important thing is preparation.

[The NLD] entered Parliament in 2012, but the reality is that it still has not recruited enough able people to assume the necessary responsibilities. It has been criticized for lacking policies. Does it have one now? Will it call the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan [MSDP] developed by the government its party policy? Do party members and lawmakers know much about the MSDP? Does it have people to replace the ex-military officers? Has it chosen to replace the permanent secretaries [of ministries] who put spokes in [the ministers’] wheels? It should have prepared for them by now. There are many people who will support the NLD like they did in 2015. [The NLD] now knows that its assumption that it has a large talent pool [to draw from] is wrong. It is important that it doesn’t make the same mistake again.

To summarize, the democratic government has not only failed to build democracy, but stamped on it. It will be able to save the situation if it can address this problem.

U Sai Leik, SNLD spokesperson

We contested two seats, and won one. So, we neither won nor lost. The voter turnout has declined a lot, indicating that public trust in political parties has declined, and that people are not very satisfied with the current government.

If the NLD is serious about democratic change and believes it is necessary to build the genuine federal Union to which everyone aspires, it needs to collaborate with democratic forces with greater transparency. Though the NLD believes itself to be a party that represents the entire Union, others think it is a Bamar-based party. So rather than arguing about whether it is really a party that represents the Union, if it can make compromises with ethnic people ahead of 2020, it can achieve a result better than it did in the by-election. But if it doesn’t change, its 2020 election outlook isn’t very promising.

Rather than cooperating, there must be political give and take. My assessment is that there has never been give and take since 1990. There was also no political negotiation in the 2015 general election, or in the by-elections in 2017 and 2018. But if this trend continues, and a coalition government has to be formed [in 2020], then it will become more complicated for the country.

(The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy won one of the two seats it contested in the Nov. 3 by-election.)

U Myo Nyunt, NLD spokesperson

We are a democratic party. We always trust in the people. When people judge our actions, we want them to look to the long term rather than the short term. We want the people to understand our attitude toward them.

We’ve never done anything to please the people [with short-term favors]. We only work to bring about healthy changes and improve the country in the long term. In so doing, people may not like some of our actions. So, I’d like to request the people judge our actions from various perspectives.

Regarding the by-election results, I think people have taken their daily lives into consideration a lot. It is important to improve their daily lives.

We never go back on our promises. We always try to realize them. But we admit that our progress has been slow because certain things can’t be done by us alone. And we admit that people are frustrated with the slow progress after they pinned high hopes on us.

(The NLD won seven out of 13 contested seats in the Nov. 3 by-election.)