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Politics

Myanmar presidential race heats up

Myanmar President Thein Sein visits a photo exhibition in Beijing on June 29, 2014. (Getty Images)

YANGON -- In an upbeat tour of China and the U.S. in recent days, Myanmar Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann made every effort to look and sound presidential.

     Ditching his usual longyi, or sarong, for a sharp Western suit, Shwe Mann told a gathering at a U.S. think tank that "if the USDP nominates me as presidential candidate, I am happy to accept."

     Shwe Mann, who also chairs the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, first spoke of his presidential ambitions almost two years ago. Now, six months before national elections, the former No. 3 in Myanmar's previous military junta is among a handful of contenders jostling for position as the race for the presidency kicks into gear.

So Suu me

Incumbent President Thein Sein, in office since early 2011, has not said directly whether he wants a second term. But in a monthly radio address broadcast May 4, Thein Sein, also of the USDP, seemed to hint he would not seek a presidential nomination after the 2015 general elections expected in November.

     "My government's objective is to leave a foundation for the next government to build on," Thein Sein said, referring to Myanmar's attempts to forge a peace agreement with ethnic minorities before the elections.

     More than 70 parties will contest 498 seats in Myanmar's upper and lower houses of parliament, with 166 additional seats reserved for the military. The president is chosen by the newly elected members of parliament, including military lawmakers, who make up 25% of the total and have veto power over constitutional change.

     If Thein Sein eschews a second term, it should be easier for Shwe Mann to win the USDP's backing for the presidency. But barring a major surprise, the USDP will not win enough seats to nominate a president, as all signs point to a big election win for the National League for Democracy, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi that won the last free elections held in Myanmar in 1990.

     In effect, that means Shwe Mann's chances of becoming president could rest with the NLD. He is already making overtures to Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years under the junta. Asked if he would consider a coalition government following the elections, Shwe Mann said: "I am ready to cooperate with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," using a traditional honorific. 

     But Suu Kyi, too, wants to be president and has threatened to boycott the elections unless a clause in the constitution is changed that bars people who have foreign nationals in their immediate family from running for president. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is ineligible under the current rules because she has two children by her late husband, British academic Michael Aris. Even if the constitution is amended to allow her to run, Suu Kyi also wants the army's veto power reduced before she agrees to participate.

     Shwe Mann said in 2014 the constitution should be amended to allow for a Suu Kyi presidency. But speaking in the U.S. on May 2, he said that such amendments would not be passed in time for the elections.

     "When we are talking about the amendment of the constitution, there are some things that can be done easily and some things that are tough," he said. Amending the constitution is an onerous affair. More than 75% of MPs must vote for the change, which is then put to a referendum. The referendum then must gain majority support among Myanmar's eligible voters before becoming law.

Referendum debate

One way around that obstacle would be to call a referendum on the constitutional change on the day of the election, according to Andrew McLeod, director of the Oxford-Myanmar Law Program at Oxford University. McLeod suggested the constitutional changes could first be passed by the current parliament before a referendum is called on election day. 

     "That does not preclude constitutional changes coming into effect before the next parliament convenes," McLeod told the Nikkei Asian Review, holding out hope for Suu Kyi that she could put herself forward during the presidential nominations to be made when the newly elected parliament convenes in early 2016.

     NLD spokesman Han Tha Myint said the party would continue to push for constitutional reform and was lukewarm about any deal between his party and Shwe Mann's. He told the NAR: "We do not have any stance on that now. We can find a solution to the formation of a government after the election."

     Former political prisoner Mya Aye, a leading member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist group, believes that while a deal between the NLD and USDP is not inconceiveable, it would not be popular with voters who are seeking to topple ex-military men from the highest office.

     "Shwe Mann was a general. I don't think he should become president after his military background," Mya Aye told the NAR.

     Six-party talks involving Suu Kyi, Thein Sein, Shwe Mann, army chief Min Aung Hlaing, Aye Maung -- a representative of Myanmar's many ethnic minority parties -- and upper house Speaker Khin Aung Myint have taken place twice since late 2014. A third round is scheduled for this month.

     Suu Kyi sees the talks as another opportunity to push for constitutional change, but she is meeting resistance.

Power, privilege

In a pointed reference to Suu Kyi's presidential ambitions, Khin Aung Myint told the media last week, "We should look at this problem not from the point [of view] of one individual, but from the point of the national interest of the country."

     Feeling threatened, army chief Min Aung Hlaing has also said on several occasions the constitution should not be amended, a sign the army will not surrender its political privileges easily.

     Min Aung Hlaing may have presidential aspirations of his own, after an endorsement by Brigadier Gen. Wai Lin last November. The leader of the army's representatives in parliament said then that military MPs could nominate the army chief as president after the 2015 elections.

     "The other likely nominee at this stage appears to be Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces who is set to retire soon," said Vikram Nehru, a Southeast Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a U.S. think tank.

     But even a unanimous vote by military MPs will not be enough to secure the presidency for Min Aung Hlaing. In the short time that remains before the elections, the army chief needs to build bridges with the other political parties, many of which represent ethnic minorities that have experienced brutality at the hands of the junta. The Myanmar army fought ethnic insurgents in bloody wars for decades. Now it faces the challenge of persuading these minorities -- which together make up an estimated 40% of the population -- that its candidate would make a good president.

     Assessing Min Aung Hlaing's chances of winning the highest civilian office, Vikram Nehru told the NAR: "He doesn't appear to have a substantial following among the political parties."

     With Thein Sein implying he will not seek a second term, and other contenders facing an uphill struggle, could a dark horse emerge?

     Some of Myanmar's best-known political figures are members of Generation 88, so named because its leaders were on the front line of student protests in 1988. Many of the group's key members spent years if not decades in jail after rallying fellow students to demand democratic reforms. The group's leader, Min Ko Naing, appears regularly at rallies, sometimes alongside Aung San Suu Kyi, and is popular with the public.

     Although the registration deadline for the 2015 elections has passed, and Mya Aye has said the Generation 88 has no political ambitions, he has not ruled out the possibility that individual members could seek to enter electoral politics. "Some people might decide their own way," he said. 

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