Myanmar’s 2015 election season is off to a dramatic start. Massive flooding and complaints about inaccurate voter lists have caused delays in early procedural deadlines. In a midnight raid on the headquarters of the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) party, ministers from the president’s office, accompanied by soldiers and police, deposed the speaker of parliament, Thura U Shwe Mann, as head of the party. Meantime, when the list of candidates was released for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the party faced protests from those who did not make the cut.
Despite the drama of candidate lists and leadership struggles, the prospects for credible elections still look promising. Very large numbers of political parties and candidates have signed up to run in the elections, suggesting that hope for the political process is on the upswing.
The Union Election Commission set November 8 as the election date and announced procedural deadlines for finalizing voter registration lists, party registration, candidate registration, and commencement of campaigning. It was then forced by unforeseen circumstances to delay its first two deadlines.
First, the confusion and complaints over inaccurate voter registration lists delayed the August deadline for publishing final lists. This deadline may slip further if the next iteration of the lists still contains major inaccuracies. The confusion is leading to speculation within the NLD and ethnic minority parties that the disarray may be a deliberate ploy by the election commission, acting on behalf of the USDP, to disadvantage opposition supporters.
Second, unusually heavy monsoon rains and a cyclone inundated much of the country, displacing some 200,000 people and forcing a week’s delay in the candidate registration deadline. The election commission announced that 93 parties have submitted 6,189 candidates to run for 1,171 parliamentary seats. Decisions will be issued soon on the eligibility of the proposed candidates. Thus far these procedural delays do not appear to have risked a delay in the election date itself.
Meanwhile, controversy has already erupted within the two major parties.
National League for Democracy
Anticipation built for weeks that the NLD would broaden its electoral base by including prominent members of the 88 Generation --one of the country’s most prominent pro-democracy movements -- and other longtime political activists on its list of election candidates. But the NLD included only a handful of these activists on its final list.
Most notable among the omissions was 88 Generation leader U Ko Ko Gyi, who spent more than 17 years as a political prisoner. He had partnered with the NLD in its campaign to amend the constitution to eliminate the military’s current veto power in the parliament, and he hoped to run from his hometown in Yangon as an NLD candidate for the lower house of parliament.
These decisions brought a loud outcry from NLD members and 88 Generation supporters. When NLD members in the district center of Pakkoku staged a demonstration to protest candidate decisions, the NLD dismissed several of them from the party. Still others have criticized the NLD for deciding to compete against ethnic minority parties in the ethnic states.
Union Solidarity and Development Party
The commotion in the NLD, however, was quickly overshadowed by open strife within the government party leadership. On the night of Aug. 12, security forces swooped down on USDP headquarters in Naypyitaw to support ministers from the president’s office as they took control of the party away from party Chairman Shwe Mann.
Tensions between Shwe Mann and both the president’s office and the armed forces commander-in-chief had been building for more than two years over Shwe Mann’s management of the parliament and the party, his challenges to the constitution, and his growing alliance with NLD leader Suu Kyi.
The pressures boiled over after an Aug. 12 meeting to finalize the USDP candidate list. Shwe Mann accepted only 50 of the 150 newly retired military officers whom the commander-in-chief had asked to be included as USDP candidates. Prominent ministers from the president’s office were also excluded from the list. Shwe Mann’s opponents thus moved to oust him in time to correct the candidate list before the Aug. 14 deadline for registration.
This early level of enthusiasm to jump into the political arena suggests that the fundamentals of democratic governance are already beginning to guide the 2015 elections.
Party and government spokesmen have confirmed that Shwe Mann will remain speaker of parliament until the end of the current term and he will still run in the elections as the USDP candidate from his hometown of Phyu, north of Yangon.
Suu Kyi quickly came to Shwe Mann’s defense, decrying the undemocratic nature of the strong-arm tactics used to remove him from the party leadership. She declared that the NLD would now count Shwe Mann as an ally.
Meanwhile, a recall drive was launched against Shwe Mann by voters in his current Naypyitaw constituency, which is predominantly military. The petition accused him of disrespecting the military by proposing constitutional amendments to curb its power in the parliament. When the parliament reconvened on Aug. 18, Shwe Mann’s opponents introduced a bill to implement the constitutional provision that as few as 1 percent of voters in a constituency could force a member’s recall. In a show of support for Shwe Mann, a majority of parliamentarians voted to delay consideration of the bill until after the elections.
If Shwe Mann’s enemies in the government, the party, or the military take further steps to remove him from political life, it could easily backfire on them: With democracy icon Suu Kyi’s strong support, Shwe Mann could be cast as a martyr crucified for promoting democracy.
In reality, the warfare among military and ex-military leaders is probably more a struggle over power and personality than over the country’s direction. Both U Shwe Mann in the parliament and President Thein Sein’s team in the executive have been advocates of reform and democratization for the last four years. And, on the whole, the military has supported this process. What they are fighting over now are the questions of who will lead the reform process after the elections and at what pace it will proceed.
Although the NLD and USDP are the two giants in the parliamentary race, the ethnic minority parties are also aiming to capture a larger share of seats. Ethnic parties in the Shan and Rakhine states are the largest, but many small ethnic parties have emerged throughout the country in this election. There was not much ethnic minority enthusiasm for the 2010 elections, because at that time the parliament was expected to be merely an instrument of continued military rule.
Now, however, ethnic groups see that the parliament could be key to pursuing their interests at both the national and regional levels. Instead of competing on the USDP ticket, as many did in 2010, they are forming their own parties and aiming especially at seats in the state-level parliaments to take control of regional and local governance.
Recognizing that their political strength will be enhanced by unity, many of the ethnic parties are exploring the formation of alliances to advance common agendas in the next government.
This early enthusiasm to jump into the political arena suggests that the fundamentals of democratic governance are already beginning to guide the 2015 elections, offering hope that the election itself will come to mark a major step toward the country’s democratization.
Priscilla Clapp is a senior advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Society, and a former U.S. chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar.