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Myanmar polls bring end to 'helpful ambiguity'

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A supporter waves a NLD party flag during a campaign rally in Yangon on Nov. 4.   © Reuters

Myanmar will go to the polls this Sunday, Nov. 8, to elect a new parliament. Credible elections will be crucial for the country's democratic transition. More important will be what the winners and losers do in the weeks afterwards.

     Not only will the future of Myanmar democracy hang in the balance, but also any prospects for political reconciliation, an end to decades of armed conflict, and a path to sustainable development.

     A successful Myanmar, sitting between China, India, and South East Asia, is key for both regional integration and security. But what is even more significant for the rest of the world is the notion of Myanmar as a model: a model of peaceful change from dictatorship, at a time of failed transitions and enduring authoritarian regimes elsewhere.

     For nearly a quarter century, politics in Myanmar were frozen. On one side was the military regime, which attempted to open up the economy without any measure of democratic reform, and in the early 2000s set out its "Road Map" to the quasi-civilian constitution we have today. On the other was the opposition, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, whose aim was never anything less than democratic government.

     By 2010 things looked bleak, with Aung San Suu Kyi under a further term of house arrest, her NLD party boycotting elections under the new constitution, and Western sanctions seemingly set to remain indefinitely.

     It is important to remember that what followed was not a negotiated process. Think of it instead as an unchoreographed set of steps that brought both sides, temporarily, into a kind of cohabitation.

     In 2011 the new government of President U Thein Sein introduced a degree of political freedom unseen in decades. Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest, then made an historic compromise, accepting the new constitution, dropping her support for Western sanctions, and entering parliament after winning a seat in the 2012 by-elections.

A helpful ambiguity

     In the years since, both sides have been able to share Myanmar's political space because of a helpful ambiguity over where all the changes so far were meant to lead. For many in the old establishment, there has been the comforting feeling that any future changes would remain under their control, and a hope that the reforms undertaken would lead to a decent showing at the next election. On the opposition side, there have been worries that the government's reforms so far have not only masked an unchanged power structure but also an expectation that the 2015 polls would usher in a new order.

     The upcoming election may remove the ambiguity that has allowed a sometimes tense but generally cordial cohabitation. Around the corner may be a period of far more divisive politics.

High-risk scenarios

     There are two main scenarios. The first is a landslide victory for the NLD in which the party captures enough seats in the bicameral legislature to gain a clear majority -- even with the 25% of seats automatically allocated to the armed forces.

     Aung San Suu Kyi (who is herself barred from the presidency by constitutional restrictions) would choose the next president and appoint most of the cabinet - as she made clear in a Nov. 5 press conference in Yangon. Under the constitution, the armed forces would retain one of two vice presidencies and three powerful ministries, as well as maintain an effective veto over constitutional reform.

     It is hard to imagine the NLD not emerging as the largest party. Popular support in Yangon and many other urban areas for the party seems overwhelming.

     But the countryside is a world apart and there is a second scenario where the ruling Union Solidary and Development Party wins enough seats that the party, together with the military, maintains control of parliament, reelecting the incumbent president, U Thein Sein, to a second term.

     Either scenario would result in considerable disappointment for the losing side. If the NLD emerges as the largest party in parliament but is not able to select the next president, opposition anger may be intense. Major problems with voter rolls in the lead-up to the polls would give easy ammunition to anyone wanting to challenge the results. There will be about three months between Sunday's polls and a new government taking shape, allowing plenty of time for a more acrimonious political environment to develop.

     That would be bad news for the peace process between the government and ethnic armed organizations. The government and eight non-state armies signed a ceasefire agreement in October and are in the process of setting up a national "political dialogue" to help end seven decades of armed conflict. The process is still at a very delicate stage, with many other ethnic armed organizations still outside the current ceasefire arrangement. In the election, several ethnic minority parties may do well, and their voice and participation will be vital in the next phase of Myanmar's transition. A weak government at the center may have little time or ability to take the process forward.

     A divisive political environment would also take its toll on the economy. There is an urgent need to attract tens of billions of dollars in new investment, especially for desperately needed infrastructure improvements, and make tough decisions in crucial areas such as land reform, that can move the economy into higher gear. Economic issues have been almost entirely missing from the campaign rhetoric for the Nov. 8 poll. Political deadlock at a time of falling global demand for Myanmar's commodity exports will be a disaster for the country's poorest, as well as for its newly aspiring middle classes.

     There is of course another way: that in the aftermath of the elections, whatever the results, all sides move away from a zero-sum outcome and agree together on a new government, one including many ethnic minority voices, that will be able to advance democratic change as well as tackle the tough peace and development challenges ahead. There is little in the country's political history that suggests that this third scenario is likely - yet, it will be essential for Myanmar's future and for the success of the "Myanmar model."

Thant Myint-U is a historian and the author of "Where China Meet's India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia".

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