An Unsteady Balance of Power Likely in Myanmar Elections

An Unsteady Balance of Power Likely in Myanmar Elections
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Much uncertainty surrounds the lead up to and conduct of Myanmar’s upcoming legislative elections. The recent voting down of constitutional amendments in parliament — almost certainly (and solely) by the bloc of appointed, non-elected military parliamentarians — erodes to a certain extent the legitimacy of the electoral process.

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) retain their privileged political powers and Aung San Suu Kyi remains barred from the presidency. These events question the sincerity of Myanmar’s transition away from military rule, especially as power is becoming increasingly more diffuse and diversified with respect to the actors involved.

But there are encouraging signs that the Thein Sein government is determined to hold credible elections. And despite her ineligibility for president, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have now committed to participating in the Myanmar elections. They, along with a number of ethnic parties, present voters with a range of options, which enhances the credibility of the process.

Yet challenges remain. These include a high risk of violence during the campaign, especially as a number of nationalist monks become increasingly politically outspoken against ethnic and religious minorities. There remains fear that loopholes, including the much criticised national voters list, may be exploited by the ruling regime to maintain power.

Thura Shwe Mann — facing possible expulsion from the USDP — may be positioning himself as a coalition figure with his military background assuaging the concerns of those in uniform
Thura Shwe Mann — facing possible expulsion from the USDP — may be positioning himself as a coalition figure with his military background assuaging the concerns of those in uniform Photo DFAT Australia

Despite these concerns the Myanmar elections offer the real possibility of a significant reconfiguration of Myanmar’s political landscape. Unlike the 1990 Myanmar elections there are strong indications that the generals — with their powers and prerogatives secured — will accept the result, even if that implies the demise of their allies in the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Divisions within the ruling regime, most recently the unexpected removal of Thura Shwe Mann as the head of the USDP by what appears to be a collaborated move by President Sein and the military, present opportunities for opposition parties to gain further power. This includes working with marginalised power holders to promote an alternative political future.

Such a reconfiguration of power adds another layer of complexity with the involvement of a growing number of actors, including the country’s still-powerful military. An NLD legislative victory, even a decisive one, does not entail automatic access to and control of the executive and government.

This is due to the processes stipulated by the constitution for determining their membership; processes that the Tatmadaw retain significant influence over. But the diminution of the USDP will open doors for the NLD and others making them indispensable entities with which the military will have to work if they are committed to system maintenance.

This diversification of the political realm will make coalition building and finding common ground a difficult and constant endeavor. The NLD for example, remains largely focused on the removal of the military politically. But the main priority of many ethnic parties — who are increasingly organising into formalised blocs in an attempt to become legislative power brokers — is the reconfiguration of powers between central and state governments.

Within this increasingly messy political landscape and with the military maintaining its veto role, Thura Shwe Mann — facing possible expulsion from the USDP — may be positioning himself as a coalition figure with his military background assuaging the concerns of those in uniform while at the same time maintaining ties to opposition entities via a shared reformist agenda, including a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after demotion within the USDP.

Factions now in control of the USDP and the Tatmadaw may want to nominate other figures (specifically President Thein Sein and Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing) for the presidency. Yet, depending on the distribution of seats within parliament after the elections, they may have to accept another nominee — such as Thura Shwe Mann — in a negotiated compromise. They otherwise risk having the NLD and other opposition parties put forth and elect candidates with a non-military background.

Such a development would also be a less-than-desirable situation for the NLD, especially if they win a legislative majority in the Myanmar elections. But compromise is needed to ensure the continued emancipation of the political, social and economic realms away from those in uniform.

While politics is no longer a closed system under the exclusive purview of the Tatmadaw, the system remains one of regime maintenance with the military retaining critical ministerial portfolios and veto powers over constitutional reforms. Many former military generals control newly created centres of power such as the executive, parliament and the Election Commission.

The Myanmar elections hold the promise of opposition parties winning a large number — if not a majority — of seats. These can then be employed in the negotiations and voting for the state’s senior executive positions, including two of the three presidential candidates and the speakers of the lower and upper house.

Even securing a few of these important posts would propel opposition entities into the cabinet and the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), bodies overwhelmingly comprised of active and former military officers.

The NDSC in particular, the highest executive institution responsible for security and strategic matters, has five active duty and five former military generals in its membership. Opposition members’ entrance in these forums would slowly begin to carve out spaces within these decision-making organisations and dilute, albeit slowly, the old regime’s grip on these critical devices of authority.

It will most likely require large-scale and well-coordinated manipulation of the electoral process for the USDP to win the upcoming Myanmar elections, though they have pledged not to pursue such options. A significant redistribution of parliamentary seats favouring opposition parties is the most likely result of the November Myanmar elections if they are free and fair.

Such a result would support the gradual evolution of the political system and state at large away from military control over the levers of power. Winning within the current rules of the game, even if they are biased towards the old regime, is critical for reformers. Consolidating a popular mandate through access into the parliament and executive bodies is a step towards the more ambitious and contentious matters of changing the rules of the system itself.

The continued transition of the state depends on it being able to absorb changes in the distribution of power without provoking resistance from a powerful, yet nervous, military that has much to lose.


Adam P. MacDonald is an independent researcher based in Halifax, Canada. This article first appeared on East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license and is reproduced here with its permission



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