NLD Should Take By-election Results as a Wake-Up Call

By The Irrawaddy 4 April 2017

Burma’s by-elections last weekend were the most telling sign for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party as to whether it still enjoys the popular support it received in the 2015 general election.

Out of 18 seats that the NLD contested on Saturday, it secured 9—only 50 percent, a sharp contrast to its 79 percent victory two years prior. The party lost in three of the four ethnic areas it contested.

NLD spokesperson U Win Htein on Sunday blamed the public for its failure to vote.

And yes, people didn’t show up to the polls, most likely because their faith in the party has declined in the past two years. Back then, they did not care who the candidates were, they cared for the party. And voters including ethnic groups unanimously backed the NLD, as they believed that the elected candidates would support them in return.

But when a party fails to listen to its supporters, voters feel betrayed and will pull their support when elections come around again. This is what happened to the NLD in many of the ethnic regions during the by-elections.

The best example is Mon State’s Chaungzon Township, where the NLD won the 2015 general election despite rivalries from local ethnic parties and its main opposition, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

But on Saturday, the majority of voters stayed home — many unhappy with the government’s recent decision to name a local bridge after independence hero Gen Aung San, despite local objections. Electoral statistics from the area show that only 38 percent of eligible voters participated.

When the results were announced, to the NLD’s embarrassment, it did not even garner half of the votes it received in 2015. The USDP was victorious.

Despite the fact that by-election results will not impact the power structure of the current government; NLD leadership should take this as a wake-up call from the belief that the public will blindly support them in the future.

Many people stood behind the party hoping that their voices would not fall on deaf ears as they felt they had during the military regime. If their wishes continue to be ignored, it will be difficult for them to see a difference between the previous regime and the current government. People will not continue to support a government that ignores them.

The NLD leadership should also take candidate selection into consideration. While the USDP carefully chose a Chaungzon native famous for his charity work in the area, the NLD selected a faceless stranger, ignoring local supporters’ wishes again.  The NLD leadership should be aware that a “party first, candidate second” era ended with the 2015 election.

The results in Shan State, where the NLD lost seven out of eight contested seats to local Shan parties and the USDP, indicate that the NLD is failing the ethnic people there. The party has never been popular in the area and the by-election results show that no gains have been made.

In her State of the Union address prior to the by-election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi noted that her government would last as long as it welcomed and accepted criticism. This by-election is the most critical public remark to date. Hopefully, the ruling party finds a lesson in that.