Myanmar’s upcoming by-election on April 1st will be the first chance for Burmese voters to rate the performance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her government since her rise to power in 2015. A widely respected pro-democracy advocate, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) handily won the 2015 elections, yet internal party discord, ethnic parties and the ousted Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) all present challenges for Suu Kyi come April 1st.
In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi managed to rally various pro-democracy groups, regime opponents, and ethnic minorities to sweep the USDP from power, reducing its seat count from 388 to just 41. Suu Kyi and the NLD won 80% of the available seats (one quarter of legislative seats are reserved for the military). Yet, a little over a year later, her coalition of supporters is coming apart. There has been increasing criticism of the NLD’s stewardship of the country, both internationally and domestically.
Economic issues dominate Myanmar’s by-election
While the international community has cited Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya crisis as a growing blemish on her global image, it is important to note that the NLD’s power-sharing compromise with the junta does not entail civilian control over the military. As a result Suu Kyi has no official means to influence the military, nor force it to stop persecuting the Rohingya. Moreover, the Rohingya’s unpopularity in Myanmar hardly makes them a rallying cry against the junta among the Buddhist majority. Consequently, confronting the military over the Rohingya is a lose-lose situation for Suu Kyi and the NLD – at least for the time being – as doing so would only alienate the party from many of its supporters, as well as threaten the country’s fragile democratic transition, should the junta retaliate.
While the realities of power-politics are tarnishing Suu Kyi’s image abroad, there is little she and the NLD can do. Critics point to the government’s frequent denials of atrocities, yet Myanmar’s civilian government does not have full control over all state organs like other countries. Consequently, “what the NLD government […] has control over is its messaging”, notes Matthew Walton, senior research fellow of Burmese Studies at Oxford. Many NLD supporters, and likely many of its leaders (the NLD did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 election) are not sympathetic towards the Rohingya, so their plight is not considered a priority.
The Rohingya will not be an election issue. Instead the contest will be dominated by economic issues, as well as concerns about the government’s slow or incomplete arbitration on issues of land confiscation, illegal mining, corruption, poverty, education and health services. While still robust, economic growth fell from 7.3% in 2015 to 6.3% in 2016, with the country unlikely to reach – let alone surpass – the $9.4 billion worth of foreign investment it received in 2015.
Consequently, “the by-elections will be a good barometer. If you go back to [the by-election in] 2012 she won handsomely, but now the other parties have ammunition.” states Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute.
Campaigning while in power a new challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi
The by-election campaign already got off to a less than perfect start for the NLD, which will only field candidates for 18 of the 19 contested seats, having missed the deadline to appoint their final candidate. This makes the ousted USDP the only party fielding candidates in all 19 contests. The USDP is still trying to find itself after its calamitous 2015 defeat, stating that its current goals are to secure by-election victories ahead of a full come-back in the 2020 elections. While the USDP’s recent fall from power and close links to the military make it too soon for a comeback, they are seeking to reform their electioneering tactics. The USDP has made a concerted effort to stay local and only appoint candidates with local ties committed to their communities. This has resulted in a cull of ex-ministers and big names from the voting lists, as well as a broader age range among its candidates.
The NLD will also be unable to draw on many big names to drum up support, as serving ministers – including Aung San Suu Kyi – are constitutionally barred from engaging in party activities. This means that the NLD cannot count on Suu Kyi’s star power, with senior NLD official U Win Htein noting that “when we campaign we might be weak because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to canvas for votes.”
With the NLD in power, the party now finds itself in a new position, one that necessitates a change from the kind of campaigning and rhetoric used during the party’s decades long tenure in Myanmar’s political opposition. This is where other groups may seek to chip away at the NLD’s majority. One such group is the National Democratic Force (NDF), a splinter group comprised by disgruntled NLD supporters formed after Suu Kyi’s boycott of the 2010 elections. While the NDF’s few seats went to the NLD during the heady 2015 election, the NDF is looking at a 2017 comeback, offering itself as an credible, pro-democracy alternative to the NLD, looking to steal other disgruntled NLD supporters come April.
Another threat to the NLD is the efforts of the so-called 88 Generation to create their own political party come the end of 2017. While they will not compete in April, 88 Generation represents a demographic challenge to the NLD going forward, as the student protestors of 1988, many household names now in their forties, represent a generational shift from the septuagenarian and octogenarian NLD leadership – including the spirited Aung San Suu Kyi, now 71. While the group’s nebulous, big-tent title and nascent nature do not make them an immediate threat, they remain a force to be watched in the coming years.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s absence in the upcoming election leaves many untested NLD candidates across the country to take up the slack. This could be problematic, as these local candidates lack Suu Kyi’s charisma and are tainted by a year’s worth of shortcomings and complaints which have accumulated at the local and provincial level. One story highlights this problem and how it intersects with the economic concerns of voters, as well as the rise of ethnic political parties.
NLD support in ethnic regions threatened
In 2015, the NLD gained 19 of Mon State’s 23 seats, making the region the best performing of all of Myanmar’s seven ethnic states for the NLD. One year on and the story is radically different. Locals and even NLD lawmakers have signed petitions calling for the dismissal of Chief Minister U Min Oo, who himself shocked a NLD branch meeting by asking to resign without offering a reason. Separate complaints have also emerged about two senior NLD officials in the Tanintharyi region.
Oo has been accused of being too close to local businesses, as bidders on government contracts are encouraged to include donations (totalling between 5-10% of the bid price) with their proposals, funds which pay for government events and prizes. Critics cite the lack of accountability about how this money is spent as evidence of Oo’s cronyism. Together with complaints about land confiscation, illegal mining and even inappropriate loudspeaker use, popular anger is merging with an internal NLD coup, throwing the regional government into disarray. Indeed, Oo’s harshest critics are his NLD colleagues, who while holding seats in the chamber do not hold portfolios.
Oo’s incompetence and the NLD’s infighting have in turn empowered the ethnic All Mon Region Democratic Party, whose representative Aung Naing Oo (no relation) described the chief minister as “a crony businessman.”
This reflects a wider trend in ethnic regions, where voters lent their support to NLD to oust the USDP, now turning to ethnic/regional parties in 2017. In total, 12 ethnic parties are contending the April 1st by-election. Alongside concerns that recent violence in Shan State between the military and the Shan State Progressive Party will threaten the election, there is a growing backlash against national parties like the NLD and USDP. Sai Lak, secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy explains:
“During the last election, the NLD was victorious, and the USDP won in the Shan State parliament. Ethnic parties were mostly losers. We believe this by-election will allow more check and balances on the government if our ethnic parties win.”
There is a danger that the NLD will replace the USDP as the out-of-touch nationalist party seen as promoting majority Bamar interests in the minds of ethnic voters. Success by ethnic parties will only validate this, as the NLD loses support in ethnic regions, undermining its efforts to build a pan-national party and move Burmese politics away from its ethno-linguistic focus which continues to undermines national unity.