The Jockeying Begins

By The Irrawaddy 9 July 2014

With Myanmar’s big election just one year away, speculation is growing about who will take the helm of the country’s next government.

So far, attention has been focused on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the immensely popular leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). However, her candidacy is now more in doubt than ever, after a parliamentary committee on constitutional reform decided in early June to reject her calls to amend a clause that bars her from the presidency on the grounds that her two sons are foreign nationals.

There has also been some talk of the incumbent, President U Thein Sein, seeking a second term. As a self-styled reformer, he has won plaudits both at home and abroad, despite the fact that he came to power by means of a rigged election in 2010 that heavily favored his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), founded by former military strongman Snr.-Gen. Than Shwe. Analysts have noted, however, that the sitting president’s popularity has been short-lived, and that his chances of winning in a free and fair election appear slim.

With the two most obvious contenders now seemingly (but not definitively) out of the race, political observers are hard at work trying to identify other potential candidates. At the top of their list is Union Parliament Speaker U Shwe Mann, who has made no secret of his desire to become president.

Along with some other “progressive” members of the former junta, including U Aung Ko (a former military officer and deputy minister under the previous regime), U Shwe Mann has publicly supported constitutional reform. He is also known to be close to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who speaks of him with respect.

“We are rivals, not enemies,” she said recently of her relationship with U Shwe Mann. “In our discussions, there are disagreements between us, but by negotiating, we find common ground.”

Is this a political alliance in the making? Possibly, but it remains to be seen how the two “rivals” could share power post-2015.

Meanwhile, U Thein Sein appears to be moving closer to hardline elements in the USDP, such as former industry minister U Aung Thaung and former agriculture minister U Htay Oo, both of whom are regarded as among the most corrupt members of the former junta.

Another potential ally is U Tin Aye, the chairman of Myanmar’s Union Election Commission, who ruffled NLD feathers by warning Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about “challenging” the military in speeches she made in late May. He has also said that the NLD leader will only be allowed to campaign in her own constituency, in a move seen as an effort to prevent her using her personal popularity to deliver her party another electoral landslide.

It seems, then, that while much remains undecided about how the 2015 election will play out, two very distinct strategies are at work: one that involves a direct appeal to the electorate, and another that relies on forces at work behind the scenes.

This article first appeared in the July 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.