YANGON -- Campaigning kicked off Tuesday for Myanmar's Nov. 8 general election, marking what is likely to be the start of a fierce battle between the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the popular opposition National League for Democracy.
This election will be the first in which all major political parties participate. Two general elections were held while the country was ruled by a junta, in 1990 and 2010. The NLD won in a landslide in 1990, but the military government ignored the result and refused to cede power. The NLD boycotted the 2010 election on the grounds that the constitution was undemocratic.
Clash between the top two
Of the 664 seats in the two houses of the legislature, 498 will be up for grabs, with the remaining one-fourth set aside for military personnel. All nonmilitary lawmakers are elected from single-member districts. Legislators will select the president after the election. Constitutional provisions prevent NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from seeking the presidency.
The USDP is largely composed of former military officers. If it wins more than a third of available seats in the legislature, then that combined with the seats guaranteed to the military would allow it to maintain an effective majority. The NLD needs to win more than two-thirds of contested seats to gain a majority.
The campaign season got off to a quiet start Tuesday, with none of the major parties holding big rallies. About 2,700 candidates have applied to stand for office, according to the Union Election Commission, which is checking their eligibility. The list is expected to be finalized next week or later.
The NLD and USDP are the most prominent players, with about 490 and 480 prospective candidates respectively. The NLD, which started recruiting candidates in spring, has a roster largely made up of such figures as activists and lawyers, most of who are standing for office for the first time. Suu Kyi's continued personal popularity is expected to help the party gain considerable ground in the legislature.
"Our people will have a real chance of bringing about real change," Suu Kyi said in a message on Facebook Tuesday.
On the other hand, the USDP is fielding many incumbent officials with high name recognition, including cabinet members, lawmakers and local government leaders. While President Thein Sein will not be running, he is eager to stay on as president. Myanmar does not require the president to be a legislator. If the USDP wins the general election, it will probably put up Thein Sein as a presidential candidate. The party would maintain military involvement in government and continue to pursue economic growth by attracting foreign investment.
Roughly 90 parties, including some representing the interests of minority ethnic groups, are participating in the general election. But none of the rest can compete with the top two on name recognition or resources, making the election essentially a two-horse race.
While the NLD wants to revise the constitution and the USDP aims to maintain it as is, there is little daylight between the parties on economic policy. Both have put poverty reduction and agricultural development front and center. The election looks likely to hinge on the popularity of Thein Sein and Suu Kyi.
Friction in the ruling party
In August, the USDP ousted leader Shwe Mann amid friction with Thein Sein, solidifying control of the party by the president's allies, including Shwe Mann's successor Htay Oo. Shwe Mann's name is still on the list of candidates, but an aide to Thein Sein is running as an independent in his district.
Former presidential aide Nay Zin Latt will participate in the election as leader of the National Development Party, which accounts for the fourth-largest share of the candidate list with about 200. The party, which supports Thein Sein's administration, aims to win over voters rejecting the USDP for its strong association with the old junta. But many believe that it is actually a USDP affiliate that could join a coalition with the larger party after the election.
Soe Thein, a minister in the president's Office, and other administration officials have declared their intention to run as independents and could work with the USDP after the election. How much support these breakaway candidates garner will serve as another barometer in this election.