USDP Looks to Regroup after Bruising Election Defeat
By Swe Win 24 December 2015
RANGOON — Stretching back in his chair at his party office in Thaketa Township in eastern Rangoon, Nyunt Pe looks at ease, despite losing his seat in the divisional parliament in last month’s elections.
“I played the role of a villain for the past five years,” he said.
The 65-year-old former military officer remembers how he often voted down the proposals of opposition MPs in parliament as a lawmaker for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
For example, in the Rangoon Division parliament, his party rejected a proposal by an opposition MP to give nutritious food to all primary school children in the entire Rangoon Division, at a cost he estimated of US$150,000 a day.
“Those who proposed things like this were hailed as heroes. But we had no choice but to reject them,” he said, arguing that many of the opposition’s ideas were simply too expensive.
But the voters’ verdict on the USDP’s performance in government was clear. The ruling party, led by former army generals who took power through the flawed 2010 elections, suffered a drubbing in the Nov. 8 elections at the hands of the NLD.
Political observers now question how and whether the once-mighty party will be able to regroup, and what it will look like as an opposition force.
Myanmar Now’s interviews with several USDP members show the party is looking to come back with a new, leaner line-up, although the exact details are scarce. Officials say their first task is to identify activists from the grassroots to senior levels, and start to reorganize the party from bottom to top.
“The party will remain active both within the Parliament and in society,” said Thar Win, secretary of the USDP’s Rangoon branch, declining to elaborate further.
The party was formed just before the 2010 elections and absorbed all the assets and infrastructure of its precursor the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass social and political movement formed by the then-ruling junta.
Nyunt Pe never intended to become a legislator. He suffered gunshots in both of his legs during the battles with Karen rebels in the early 1990s and was appointed as a senior official in Rangoon’s municipality after his retirement from the army.
In 2010 when he reached 60, the official retirement age for all government employees, he bought a two-acre plot of land in the remote capital Naypyidaw and built a house where he planned to live out his days.
But as a dutiful public servant, when he was asked by the USDP to contest the elections he accepted the offer and became an MP in the regional parliament.
Flipping through a bulky file, he talked about how many roads, bridges and water wells were built in his constituency, Thaketa, after he was elected in 2010. But five years later, like most of his fellow USDP lawmakers, he lost his seat.
He describes his loss with an air of resignation: “The public wants something better than what we can offer them,” he said.
While some USDP officials regard the party’s defeat as simply a reflection of the public’s desire for change, others also attributed it to the party’s ugly purge which saw the ouster of about a dozen senior party members, including Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann.
The USDP won just 41 seats in the combined Houses of Union Parliament, while the opposition NLD secured a comfortable majority with 390 seats.
After the elections, some party officials have called for major reforms within the party. In preparation, the USDP has started collecting a list of party loyalists who worked hard during the election campaign, according to officials.
Party co-chair Htay Oo, who also lost his seat in the elections, recently told the Myanmar Times that the USDP would reform from the ground up—though he did not disclose any details.
Thar Win said township party officials have been assigned to compile the list of party loyalists, but detailed plans for the party’s reorganization would not be ready before the expiry of the term of current parliament at the end of January.
Maung Maung Than, an official at the USDP office in Rangoon’s Dawbon Township, said the party needed a revamp to replace complacent officials with grassroots party activists who campaigned enthusiastically ahead of the election.
“That’s why we are now collecting the list of party’s hardcore cadres from different wards. The party members have to tell us whether they can work just part-time or full-time for the party,” he said.
He added that some party officials slacking in their duties were those who were installed by the USDP leadership, businessmen with close ties to the army, or even secret supporters of the NLD.
“Such people are like the watermelons. They are green outside but red inside,” he said, referring to the green of the USDP and the red party color of the NLD.
The party also needs to bring up its younger generation, and promote some of them to the party leadership, officials said.
“We are looking for those young people who can succeed us. It is no easy task,” said Soe Win, a USDP lawmaker from Rangoon’s Kyauktada Township who lost to his NLD rival.
It is not clear if the outgoing President Thein Sein—the official party chief but constitutionally barred from engaging in party activities—will steer the party again.
Pike Htwe, a former deputy minister for information who joined the party’s central executive committee in a reshuffle in August, told Myanmar Now in a telephone interview that talks were still going on among party leaders about how the party should be reorganized.
Though it has lost most of its seats, the USDP will remain a significant political player, given that it enjoys the strong backing of the army, which constitutionally controls 25 percent of seats in Parliament and three key government ministries relating to security.
Nyunt Tin, a former ambassador and a USDP Upper House MP, described the party as “the army’s ally” and said the party would act as a counterbalancing force to the NLD by working together with the military MPs.
“This does not necessarily mean we will play an obstructive role, but we can’t just let the dominant party do whatever it wants. We will definitely work with everyone for the good of the country,” said Nyunt Tin, who, at 73, did not defend his seat, but will continue working in an advisory role.
Igor Blazevic, a human rights worker and the director of Rangoon-based Educational Initiatives, which has been training political activists in Burma, said the USDP would remain a strong force given the material resources and infrastructure the party still has at its disposal.
“It is very probable that USDP will keep its links with at least some segments of Burma’s military and with some business groups,” he said, adding that the USDP may also benefit when the public, which has high hopes for what the NLD can deliver, eventually becomes disillusioned.
He pointed to losing parties in other countries undergoing democratic transitions—such as Golkar in Indonesia, as well as social democratic parties in Slovenia and Hungary—as examples of parties voted out of government that have managed to survive and stay relevant.
For some outgoing USDP lawmakers, such as Nyunt Pe, a fightback is not on the cards. Instead, political defeat heralds a quiet retirement.
When the current term of Parliament expires at the end of January, he will go back to his house in a rural district of Naypyidaw and spend time with his family.
“I am going to be liberated from official responsibilities,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
This article was originally published at Myanmar Now.