There was little doubt that Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) would prevail in a free and fair national election. There was considerable concern about whether the military, which rules the country through its Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), would permit such an election. It looks increasingly like they will. Interim results show that the NLD has won an overwhelming mandate in this week’s ballot. And the military looks set to devise a formula that will effectively share power with the democratic opposition.
The NLD won Myanmar’s last genuinely fair election, which was held in 1990, in a landslide, claiming 392 of the 492 parliamentary seats. The military junta that ruled the country at the time — the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) — disregarded the ballot and held the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest. She remained under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years until she was released in November 2010. During that time, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, making her an even more hated target of the military government.
She resumed her political career immediately upon her release and shortly after commenced discussions with the junta about registering her party to join elections and the role she could play in the country’s politics. While the NLD is the country’s most popular party and Suu Kyi its most popular politician, the constitution (written by the junta) institutionalizes the military’s control of government and ensures that no other party can check its prerogatives.
That control will now be tested. In the election held last Sunday, the NLD appears to have repeated its previous performance, winning an overwhelming majority of seats in both regional and national parliaments. The NLD is reported to have clinched more than 80 percent of the contested seats in Parliament. An interim tally by the country’s election commission released Friday showed that the NLD has captured a single majority of the 664 seats in Parliament, which includes uncontested seats reserved for members of the military. Significantly, the ruling party conceded defeat — “We lost” said the USDP acting chairman — and the military has said it would “respect and follow the people’s decision.”
Nevertheless, the military retains considerable power. The constitution reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the armed forces; they are filled by appointment, not election. The commander in chief of the military nominates the heads of the three most powerful domestic ministries — that of border security, defense and the interior — and Parliament has no oversight of military budgets. He also retains the right to take control of the government in emergencies.
For many, the most glaring offense is the clause that bars anyone with foreign family members from being president. That is transparently aimed at blocking Suu Kyi’s rise to power since she married a British citizen and her two sons both have British passports.
The NLD has won a sufficient number of votes to be able to form a majority in Parliament without forming a coalition government, but even that will not be sufficient to amend the constitution to allow Suu Kyi to claim the presidency. The constitution requires approval by 75 percent of parliamentarians, an extremely unlikely outcome given that the military controls 25 percent of the seats in Parliament.
Suu Kyi is undaunted, however. She knows that if the military will accept the election results, then there is little reason not to negotiate a compromise that affords her the leading role she seeks and the people of Myanmar want her to take. Dismissing the constitution itself as “very silly,” she has spoken of a position “above the presidency.”
This outcome is a victory for those who bet that President Thein Sein was serious about reform and followed his 2011 opening with promises of aid, investment and other inducements to continue down the path of political liberalization. Japan and other Southeast Asian governments have long insisted on engaging the Myanmar government to prod it toward reform and they were joined by U.S. President Barack Obama who has visited the country three times since he took office. The Japanese government has welcomed the election as a “major step toward democratization” of Myanmar and expressed hopes for further reforms.
That journey is not yet complete. The military could still get cold feet and back away from the loss of its power and privilege, even if much of it is safeguarded. U.S. officials have already signaled that continued assistance will depend on a genuine transition of power to a representative government. Other friends and partners of Myanmar must also demand that the military genuinely cede power and not try to undermine the next government.
This outcome is an important victory for democracy, not only in Myanmar but elsewhere in the region. Democrats should take hope in other countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where political rights are circumscribed and particular parties or the military maintain a tight grip on power. The NLD’s victory in Myanmar should give them hope and the rest of the world should work to help see those hopes realized. For now, however, the work in Myanmar is just beginning. But it is a very good start.
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