Landslide: There’s no other way to put it really when you look at the results. The National League for Democracy wiped the floor with the Union Solidarity and Development Party in Burma’s April 1 by-elections, not to mention the 15 other parties and handful of independent candidates that contested the vote.
The size of the NLD’s win is likely to have a significant impact on the political landscape over and above the 43 seats the party picked up. It sets the scene for an important showdown in 2015 and puts pressure on the USDP – and to a lesser extent ethnic political parties – to respond and shore up its support.
While anecdotal reports had indicated that the NLD had won its 43 seats convincingly, full results published in Burma-language state media earlier this month show just how one-sided the April 1 vote was.
The NLD received 2.686 million, or about 65.6 percent, of the 4.092 million eligible votes cast, while the USDP received 1.123 million, or 27.5 percent. That’s a huge gap.
I was particularly surprised that the by-elections turnout was only 68.19 percent – significantly lower than in 2010 – despite what I perceived to be relatively high awareness and interest in the vote. This raises some questions: What proportion of non-voters made a conscious decision not to vote in 2012? What would their reasons for not voting have been? To what extent, if at all, was the 2010 turnout of about 77.6 percent skewed by fraudulent advance votes?
Advance votes made up only 3.31 percent of all votes in the by-elections and this is likely to have been a factor in the lower turnout. This contrasts sharply with 2010, when many government-friendly companies, state-owned enterprises and government departments voted in advance en masse. This process took place with little oversight and overwhelmingly benefited the USDP.
Problems with the electoral rolls were much more pronounced during the by-elections and would have affected turnout to some degree. Only a small fraction of cases are likely to have been documented so it’s impossible know how many of those eligible were unable to cast a vote but based on what I have heard it could have been several hundred thousand.
Since the by-elections I have pondered where the NLD votes came from, and where the USDP votes went.
It was clear that the NLD picked up a large number of votes from the USDP’s main opponents in 2010; almost all other candidates struggled, collectively attracting just 7 percent of the overall vote.
I’m sure that the government as a whole would not have been displeased with the election result and, more specifically, the glowing international response it garnered. Now the NLD is very much in… Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues are likely to find quite a lot of common ground, particularly on their short-term priorities, such as improving provision of health and education services. The key will be to first pursue those goals that more closely align with the government’s: For example, participating in peace negotiations rather than immediately pushing for amendments to the constitution to get the military out of parliament. This will not only generate results but also reduce the risk of the NLD being seen as a danger to national stability and all the potential consequences that entails.
The importance of 2015 for Burma’s future cannot be overstated; it will shape the country’s direction far more than 2010, which was essentially a military exercise to bring about a transfer of power to a non-threatening but mostly civilian government. Post-2015, Burma could be looking at a radically different political environment, with so-called democratic and ethnic parties holding a majority in the national legislature.
A major question now is which of the different groups with a shot at victory can best position themselves for success? Can the USDP rebuild its support base (assuming it ever really had one)? Will ethnic parties be able to compete with the NLD?
An NLD win is certainly not assured. In fact, I’d be surprised if we saw a landslide on the scale of the by-elections in ethnic Burmese areas, let alone ethnic minority regions.
The campaign was also based around the personality of the party’s Nobel Prize-winning leader; given she will be 70 in November 2015, it’s not clear how long she can remain at the helm of the party.
Should Aung San Suu Kyi and the party’s representatives struggle to make inroads in the parliament – another feature of the campaign was the NLD’s lofty, perhaps unattainable goals – the election in 2015 may not be as straightforward as the by-elections.
The USDP at the moment seems almost a toxic brand. Rebuilding its support to anything approaching 2010 levels will require either a great deal of coercion or a complete overhaul of the party’s image, culture and operations. I suspect this may be beyond the capabilities of its current leaders.
At the same time, it has failed to recruit or attract talented younger members to take over from some of the geriatrics in Naypyitaw; on one political “capacity-building” trip to Japan for members of political parties, the USDP stayed true to form by mostly sending the children of senior party officials.
“At a personal level they [conservatives in the USDP] know if we don’t reform ourselves, then we will hand the NLD or others a sweeping victory in 2015,” one government adviser told Financial Times last week.
Independent analyst Richard Horsey said the result could usher in “a more polarized political space in the lead-up to 2015, and possibly for more confrontational politics, as key sectors of Myanmar society – the conservative political elite, ethnic parties, and non-NLD democrats – see the risk of marginalization.”
For the USDP, the size of the loss “raises serious questions about what core group of supporters the USDP can rely on, and about its electability in the next general elections due in 2015”, he said.
“How the USDP will position itself going forward will depend in part on which of the various factions in the party will gain the ascendency following its poor showing in the polls. If the hardliners (who also have considerable financial muscle) do so, the party may start to position itself more aggressively – perhaps with the kind of corrupt populism adopted by some other parties in the region. Alternatively, a more moderate faction may use the by-election results to push for a fundamental reorganization and reorientation of the party. If the USDP is unable to formulate a credible plan for success in 2015, many of its strongest candidates may leave the party.”
As with everything in Burma, it’s difficult to speculate with any sense of conviction. There is a real risk of a coup. If there is one thing the election showed, it is that politics remains dangerously personalized; too much is reliant on the understanding between President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann.
If this relationship wavers – and, as we’ve seen in recent days, obstacles can appear in relatively unlikely places – Burma’s political future will be more opaque than ever.
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