Analysis: NLD Faces Crucial Test of Support in By-Election

By San Yamin Aung 2 November 2018

YANGON—On the eve of the second by-election to be held during its first term in office, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) admitted to being concerned about Saturday’s crucial test of its support nationwide.

NLD spokesperson Dr. Myo Nyunt told The Irrawaddy the party was taking Saturday’s poll even more seriously than the 2017 by-elections, given the public criticism it has received since then, especially over the slow pace of economic reforms in recent years.

“We do worry that the voters will feel that the party has failed to implement the election promises [it made in the 2015 general elections],” he said.

He said the government has focused on health and education, and made some progress in those sectors. On the economic front, he said, it is implementing a long-term vision, rather than chasing short-term goals.

Aware that its public support may be sliding, the government has made an effort to highlight its works and policies on the campaign trail ahead of Saturday’s vote, the spokesperson said.

A total of 69 candidates from 24 political parties are running for seats in Chin, Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states and in Yangon, Sagaing, Bago, Magwe and Mandalay regions. Seven of the candidates are running as independents.

Four Lower House seats, one Upper House seat, seven seats in state and regional parliaments and the Shan ethnic affairs minister’s seat in Mandalay Region are up for grabs in the by-elections.

The vacant seats are in Lechar in Shan State, Rathedaung in Rakhine State, Myitkyina in Kachin State, Kanpetlet and Matupi in Chin State, Tamwe and Seikkan in Yangon Region, Tamu in Sagaing Region, Myingyan and Thabeikkyin in Mandalay Region, Oktwin in Bago Region and Minbu in Magwe Region.

The NLD is running in all 13 constituencies, followed by the military-backed former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is contesting 10 seats.

While it is still the country’s most popular political party, the NLD can no longer take for granted the overwhelming public support it received in the 1990 general election, 2012 by-election and 2015 general election.

The NLD swept to power in a landslide victory in 2015, taking more than 80 percent of all seats not reserved for the military in Parliament. More than two years after taking power and almost halfway through its term, however, the NLD-led government has come under growing criticism of its lack of progress on economic reforms, backsliding on freedom of expression and generally falling short on its election promises, though it has received praise for its stepped-up fight against corruption.

In the most visible sign of this decreased support, the party won just nine of 19 vacant seats—only 50 percent of those it contested—in the 2017 by-elections. The result was a sharp contrast to its general election victory just two years prior. And while it still came out on top nationwide with nine seats won, the party lost in three of the four ethnic areas it contested, including in areas it won in 2015.

The results point to the NLD’s waning popularity in ethnic states, something political analysts attribute to its failure to deliver on its main election promises: to end the civil wars in ethnic regions and to amend the undemocratic military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

Supporters of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) hold signs at a by-election campaign rally in Yangon on Oct. 29, 2018. / Reuters

Political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein said that while the NLD is still favored to win in constituencies with Burman majorities, it faces likely defeat in the strongholds of ethnic parties—and could even have a tough fight on its hands in some other areas as well.

Of the 13 seats up for grabs in the by-election, the NLD won 11 in 2015. (The exceptions are Lechar in southern Shan State and Rathedaung in Rakhine State.)

Mandalay chief minister Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, who is also the NLD’s vice chairman, said the party is not confident of winning in Rakhine and Shan.

On a more positive note, he said that after some initial difficulties the party had gained ground in Chin and Karen states, as its Central Executive Committee had made a point of campaigning in the local languages in order to improve communication with potential voters in those constituencies.

Party spokesperson Dr. Myo Nyunt agreed that the competition in ethnic areas will be fierce, as the ethnic parties have strong support there.

He said the party still expects to win the majority of the seats that are up for grabs, however.

While the results of the by-elections will not impact the structure of the current government, they will serve as an important indicator of political parties’ popularity ahead of the 2020 general elections and a test of the NLD’s support halfway through its term.

USDP spokesperson U Thein Htun Oo told The Irrawaddy that the party was confident of winning all 10 of the seats it is contesting.

He said that the political situation had changed since 2015, and the party was enjoying a groundswell of support.

“Voters now understand that the party they believed in and chose in 2015 is not reliable. They have compared its performance with what we achieved [under the previous government],” he said, adding that the USDP expects to see greater public support at the polls in this by-election and looking ahead to 2020.

The USDP campaigned on the slogan “Time to Think”. It has placed national issues at the top of its agenda and vowed to prevent any “territorial loss” or “bullying from foreign countries.”

U Thein Htun Oo said that after winning seats in the by-election, the party would work to advance farmers’ interests and the rule of law, and to increase daily wages.

Dr. Yan Myo Thein, the political analyst, said the election results would send a signal to all parties as to  how they should prepare for 2020.

He added that the NLD would need to reconsider its policies and make corrections before 2020 if it doesn’t win more than 50 percent of the seats in Saturday’s by-election.

NLD spokesperson Dr. Myo Nyunt vowed that the public would see satisfactory developments in the remaining two years of the government’s term, adding that there will be improvements in the implementation of its long-term policies.