The Election Game

By Aung Zaw 30 March 2012

Election fever is gripping Burma ahead of Sunday’s vote. Only 45 parliamentary seats are up for grabs, but providing that voting goes to plan, it seems clear that the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will win a majority of those.

Nonetheless, the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, told reporters on Friday morning that she considered the election neither free nor fair.

Since it began campaigning for this election nearly two months ago, the NLD has complained frequently about many perceived irregularities, among them the allegation that voters lists contain the names of dead persons, as well as those too young to vote.

A further report has surfaced suggesting that advanced voting is being manipulated in much the same manner as it was used to rig the 2010 general election.

Hardliners within the ruling party and in the military have been busy campaigning to massage the voting process, and sabotage the NLD campaign.

This is disappointing given the warm welcome President Thein Sein offered to Suu Kyi when she visited him at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw last year. At the time he appeared willing to open the door for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate to contest the election and duly take a seat in Parliament. Rumors quickly spread about which cabinet position Suu Kyi would be offered.

Make no mistake—Thein Sein knows very well that Sunday’s election is crucial. If the president cannot guarantee free and fair elections, he faces a credibility problem both at home and abroad.

On one hand, he is counting on investors, donors and Western countries to ease sanctions and invest in Burma, at the same time increasing humanitarian aid and economic assistance.

In fact, the script has already been written—the international community will criticize the election as flawed, but will nevertheless deepen engagement. Thein Sein, for his part, hopes to move on quickly, and has scheduled a visit to Japan in June to lure investors and to increase assistance from Tokyo.

By that time, Suu Kyi will be sitting in the Lower House of Parliament. Everyone knows that she is the key.

During the campaign, she stated that one of her goals was to enact constitution amendments. She will probably also want to lay the groundwork for the 2015 general election.

But to what degree will the NLD be able to maneuver in Parliament? Both Houses are still controlled by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), winners of the 2010 election. Moreover, the military retains 25 percent of seats in both Houses.

For the next three years at least, Suu Kyi and her party will be but a small minority in the Parliament—even if they win every seat in the by-election.

Allowing Suu Kyi and her colleagues into the political fray is a win-win situation for the government and the military. Most skeptics remain doubtful that the NLD’s participation will in any way lead to genuine political reforms in Burma.

The Sanctions Card

The international community and its media have been closely following this election in Burma—more so since Naypyidaw allowed foreign observers and media to oversee the process.

“We consider that they [the Burmese government] have made progress,” said US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. “We just don’t consider that they have yet reached the international standard for observation.”

There is no way that the election monitoring will meet international standards. In fact, none of the countries in the region—Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia—can claim to be bastions of clean electoral systems either.

The Burmese government made the decision to allow election observers to monitor the election simply to legitimize itself in the face of the watching world, and to provide the US and the EU with enough rope so that they can untie the economic sanctions on the country while saving face.

“The conditions for sanctions and other restrictions are more than these [April] elections,” said US special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell, after his latest visit.

“There are specific issues that have to do with the release of all political prisoners, have to do with ethnic minority issues, and have to do with other issues. So, we are not looking for one particular event in order to say everything is normal, everything is right and is not reversible,” he said.

It is likely that US and EU will relax some sanctions—but many Burma watchers predict that the US will maintain some tough restrictions on Naypyidaw which it will gradually ease in return for political reforms.

This carrot and stick approach is likely to continue for some time after April 1. However, Burma’s political dynamic at home is destined to change the day that Suu Kyi takes her seat in Parliament.