Burma Set to Enter ‘Dual Ruling Party’ Era

By Neil Lawrence 12 April 2012

On April 1, the day that Burma abandoned its longstanding dual exchange rate system, it effectively adopted its political equivalent—a system that grossly overvalues the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), while tacitly acknowledging that its real political capital is essentially nil.

Like the “managed float” of the kyat, the by-elections on April 1 were an exercise in allowing the market—in the form of polling stations—to determine the relative worth of Burma’s main political parties. Even with some (apparently uncoordinated) manipulation (reports of “irregularities” were rife), the USDP won only one of 45 contested seats, in a constituency where the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) did not run; all but one of the remaining seats went to the NLD.

These results signify more than a stunning comeback for the NLD, which won elections in 1990 by a landslide, only to spend the next two decades struggling to survive relentless and sometimes brutal persecution by the ruling military junta, which refused to recognize its electoral victory. They show that support for the party has remained almost constant for the past 22 years—in itself a far more remarkable accomplishment than even the results of these two separate polls.

For the moment, the USDP has little to fear from its rival’s strong showing last week, as it still holds the vast majority of seats in both chambers of the national legislature. The NLD’s 43 seats will make it the largest opposition party in Parliament, but will barely dent the USDP’s massive 76 percent share of elected seats, which is based on the results of a national election in 2010 that the NLD boycotted.

At the same time, however, it is impossible to ignore the resounding message sent by voters. Many, including civil servants, seemed to savor the USDP’s humiliating defeat. “They lost even in the most notorious place,” said a branch manager at a state-owned bank in Rangoon the day after the by-elections, referring to the party’s failure to win any of the four seats it contested in Naypyidaw, the national capital and stronghold of the former junta.

But if the USDP has trouble winning the support of ordinary Burmese, the NLD has problems of its own. One is its obvious lack of financial resources. As the results came in on the night of the by-elections, the party’s national headquarters in Rangoon’s Bahan Township looked like the epicenter of a revolution reborn; but in the light of day, it strikes a far less impressive figure. Wedged between two furniture stores, it hardly stands out in its own neighborhood, much less as the nerve center of a national political powerhouse.

The NLD also faces numerous challenges in rebuilding its ranks and nurturing a new leadership. The party took pains to select its best and brightest to run in the by-elections, but most who will be heading to Naypyidaw on April 23 for the start of a new session of Parliament are political neophytes. Vastly outnumbered by former generals and other seasoned insiders long accustomed to wielding power, they will be hard-pressed to push their agenda.

Phyu Phyu Thin, one of the successful NLD candidates, seemed optimistic, however, that the party would be able to overcome both its own internal weaknesses and resistance to change from the ruling party. “The NLD’s policy is to do anything it can for the good of the country, so there should be no problem cooperating with the government and other parties,” she said days after the election.

She admitted, however, that one of the NLD’s top priorities—amending the military-drafted 2008 Constitution—could prove difficult. Besides assigning 25 percent of the seats in Parliament to military appointees, the charter contains a number of other provisions that the NLD has called “undemocratic”.

Asked if the party would try to address less contentious issues before tackling constitutional reform, Phyu Phyu Thin said the NLD regarded this as a key issue—along with establishing the rule of law and achieving peace with ethnic armed groups—that needed to be addressed as soon as possible.

If this seems like an overly ambitious agenda, it’s worth remembering that the guiding light of the party is none other than Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman who seems destined to someday grace Burma’s banknotes, just as her father, independence hero Aung San, once did.

“As a matter of fact, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not an ordinary person,” said Ko Ko Gyi, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group. Sitting beneath a portrait of Aung San in the group’s new office—opened since the release of many of its members from prison as part of an amnesty announced in January—Ko Ko Gyi explained that politics is largely intangible, and that “direct democracy” could often override what he called “parliamentary mechanisms”—meaning that Suu Kyi could appeal directly to the masses in ways that would give her far more power than other MPs, or indeed, the entire Parliament.

For its part, the 88 Generation Students group has foregone the parliamentary process altogether, focusing instead on grassroots activism that it sees as being in harmony with the NLD’s goals of establishing genuine democracy. This has included election-monitoring activities and efforts to build trust among Burma’s ethnic groups, as well as attempts to change the mindset of local authorities long accustomed to regarding civil society groups as a security threat.

Other groups also see themselves as contributing to the political process outside of formal channels. One is Myanmar Egress, which emphasizes the need for institution-building and offers courses in “social entrepreneurship” designed to teach young Burmese about basic political principles. More controversially, it has also sought to position itself as a “Third Force” that has faulted both the military and the NLD for the political impasse of the past two decades.

Speaking on condition of anonymity and asking that he not be directly quoted, one member of the group said that Myanmar Egress rejected both “street politics” and the reliance on personality that has characterized the NLD since its emergence in 1988. He added, however, that he expected the NLD to win Burma’s next election in 2015.

Between now and then, the NLD and USDP will have to co-exist in a peculiar relationship, with both having claim to the mantle of ruling party—the USDP because of its numerical superiority, and the NLD because of its far greater legitimacy.

As implausible as this scenario sounds, it is no stranger than the former junta’s practice of maintaining an official exchange rate that bore no relation to reality, while everybody else used a vastly different rate.

As the six-kyat-to-the-dollar party, the USDP’s days will be numbered unless it can establish itself as something other than a proxy for the military. For the NLD, meanwhile, the challenge will be to prove that it can transform the Burmese people’s enormous investment in the party into an effective means of achieving real democracy.