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Politics

Myanmar's Suu Kyi faces nationwide challenge from former ally

UBP to field candidates for majority of seats in parliament

Shwe Mann, ex-speaker of Myanmar's Union Parliament, will contest National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November elections.   © Reuters

YANGON -- Myanmar's Union Betterment Party, led by former speaker of parliament Shwe Mann, will put up candidates in 80% of contested seats in the Nov. 8 parliamentary elections.

Political analysts are trying to figure out how much of a challenge his party poses to the National League for Democracy, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, which won the 2015 election in a landslide.

Shwe Mann was previously allied to Suu Kyi as the country transitioned to democratic rule in 2015. He was the third-most powerful general in the military junta and served as chairman in the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party until he was removed after an internal power struggle.

He welcomed Suu Kyi to parliament when she won the by-election in 2012 while he was serving as the parliament speaker. Although he lost his seat in 2015, Suu Kyi asked him to chair the Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission, a position he kept until last year.

During an online news conference on Saturday, Shwe Mann announced that the UBP will field 927 candidates in 261 townships.

In the upcoming elections, 260 candidates will run for the lower house and 139 for the upper chamber -- 80% of all constituencies. The remaining candidates will vie for regional and state-level posts.

Shwe Mann has said he is expecting half the UBP candidates to win, adding that he is not running himself. "I decided not to run because our UBP candidates have a good chance of winning in the constituencies where I would have liked to run," he said. "The success of many is more important than that of one."

The former general registered his party last year and has opened at least 200 offices across the country.

This has alarmed some. "He's already an experienced political insider," analyst Khin Zaw Win told the Nikkei Asian Review. "As he is not running himself, it seems like he's going to control everything [behind the scenes].''

Khin Zaw Win added that as the former leader of the USDP, Shwe Mann likely commands an existing power base. "He has the most political experience among the new parties that could challenge the NLD," he said.

There are a number of other new parties planning to run in November, among them the People's Pioneer Party, led by former NLD member Thet Thet Kine, and the People's Party, headed by former pro-democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi.

Still, Khin Zaw Win thinks the UBP will be Suu Kyi's biggest headache.

"[Shwe Mann] has got a better relationship with ethnic parties than others," he said. "He was close to the ethic representatives when he was a parliament speaker. Perhaps forming a coalition government with the NLD is one of his strategies."

At the online press conference, Shwe Mann was asked about the prospects of a coalition offer from the NLD after the elections. "I prefer to offer [coalitions] to other parties, rather than other parties offering [coalitions] to me," he said.

While Suu Kyi's government has failed to improve relations with the country's minorities, Shwe Mann has allied with ethnic parties, saying he is aware of their desire for a federal system. Without mentioning names, he said allies in ethnic states would spare him from contesting those constituencies.

"Newly established parties like us have good chances as we have made fewer mistakes [than NLD]," Shwe Mann said.

Ethnic parties such as the Mon Unity Party are seen holding the key in polls in the ethnic states. Their performance will influence the NLD's prospects for achieving a landslide victory as it did in the previous election.

He has also said that the party will focus on the working class and public servants by raising the minimum wage.

"I would rather work for the good of the country rather than for just the party," he promised during the news conference.

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