NLD's sweep to usher in era of 'elected autocracy' in Myanmar
GWEN ROBINSON, Chief editor, Nikkei Asian Review
YANGON -- One of the most revealing remarks about voter sentiment in Myanmar's historic Nov. 8 polls came from a middle-aged woman who stood patiently under the blazing sun, waiting to cast her ballot in central Yangon.
"I want to get back what they stole from us 25 years go," she said, referring angrily to the 1990 election, when Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy swept the polls -- only to see the junta annul the results. "And this time, we won't let them take it away." Those simple words highlight the popular sentiment behind what appeared even in the early hours of vote-counting to be a sweeping victory for the main opposition party.
Results were slowly trickling in through the week from the government's election commission, with final announcements due on Nov. 13 and official results by the end of November. But the prospect of an NLD victory is clear, helped along by a daily wave of candidates from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and others conceding defeat.
Among key figures to fall was the once-powerful parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, one of the few ruling party figures who forged close ties with Suu Kyi. She defended him publicly when he was ousted as head of the USDP in an internal coup in August, and in what was seen as tacit help, did not venture near his hometown of Phyu, north of Yangon, where he was campaigning for a lower house seat after leaving his military-dominated constituency in the capital, Naypyitaw. Shwe Mann lost to a mild-mannered NLD candidate, Than Nyunt, a longtime NLD supporter who once ran a grocery store before retiring.
Equally significant was the surprise defeat of the USDP's Joint Chairman U Htay Oo, who lost in his constituency of Hinthada, west of Yangon. He candidly admitted two days after the poll that the party had been defeated nationwide. "But we now have to ask why," he said in an interview.
The answer -- and the key factor behind Myanmar's remarkable shift to the NLD, an untested party full of neophyte politicians, some of whom spent years at the barricades or were even jailed and tortured -- was emotion. That was clear in the euphoric reception to early signs that the NLD was on track to capture at least 75% of the vote, which would give it a clear majority in the bicameral 664-seat national parliament. With 25% of seats automatically held by the military, the NLD requires at least 67% of seats to be able to form a government.
The prospect of an NLD government backed by an NLD-dominated parliament has put Myanmar on course to become what one blogger called an "elected autocracy" -- or, as a Yangon resident observed, a "democratic one-party state." But with the military's entrenched position in government -- with three cabinet seats in key security portfolios and at least one of two vice presidents -- and in parliament, with its 25% allocation of all seats, it would be a peculiar hybrid autocracy. Indeed, as a local blogger observed, "you could end up with a cabinet of ex-political prisoners and the people who put them in jail."
The people do not seem to care, as long as Suu Kyi, the figure they have semi-worshipped for decades, will lead the country. In a Buddhist-dominated country wracked by sectarian tensions between Buddhists and minority Muslims, they have also not cared too much that the NLD did not field one Muslim candidate and that Suu Kyi avoids speaking up on issues such the disenfranchisement of the Muslim minority. While nearly a third of the population lives in ethnic areas -- giving ethnic parties a traditionally significant profile in parliament -- voters in ethnic areas this time turned away from their own parties to vote NLD.
Even though she is barred by the country's constitution from the presidency, due to provisions against nationals with foreign spouses or children -- she had two sons by her late husband, a British academic -- she assured people before the election that a vote for any NLD candidate would be a vote for a government controlled and run by her.
She has dismissed the constitution as "silly" and declared she would choose a presidential nominee who would report directly to her, famously asserting: "I will be above the president."
No names but one
Not one of scores of ordinary voters interviewed by the Nikkei Asian Review across several states ahead of the polls could name the candidates in their constituency. Nearly all were intending to vote for the NLD, for both national and local parliaments, whoever the candidates might be. They saw their ballots only as a vote for "the Lady," as Suu Kyi is known -- and, equally significant, as a vote against the ruling USDP, a party of retired military personnel, civil servants and businessmen that swept the 2010 elections. That poll was boycotted by the NLD and condemned domestically and internationally as flawed.
The day after the Nov. 8 poll, the apparent rout of the USDP in the steady trickle of official results gave rise to another revealing remark, when the military's commander-in-chief assured the public that the military would not grab power, telling local reporters that the armed forces had "no reason not to accept the results." Warning potentially disgruntled elements, he added, "just as the winner accepts the result, so should the loser."
The spotlight now is roundly on Suu Kyi and her every move. But Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing is in many respects a crucial character in the unfolding drama.
In Myanmar's semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian system, the military holds an inviolable position. It has its 25% allotment of all 1,171 national and regional parliamentary seats, with lawmakers chosen and regularly changed by the commander-in-chief. In the bicameral national parliament, its 166-seat bloc gives it an effective veto over changes to the country's 2008 constitution that require a "supermajority" of 75%. It also has control over security-related expenditures -- which amount to more than 15% of the national budget -- and three key ministries, defense, home affairs and border affairs. It has its own business empire, dominated by two opaque holding companies with scores of businesses, from gemstones, beer and tobacco to tourism services and weapons. And significantly, through the Home Ministry, it controls a vast grass-roots web of local government budgets and administration via the sprawling General Administration Department.
In recent months, the USDP-backed government of President Thein Sein has made strategic changes in the country's large bureaucracy, including introducing a new system of permanent secretaries for every main department, many with military backgrounds.
Even so, there is clear anxiety within the formerly all-powerful Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known, at the prospect of a de facto Suu Kyi presidency -- made clear by her vows to run the government and direct her presidential nominee. Under the country's college-style system, the president is chosen by a combined vote in the new national parliament from among three vice-presidential nominees, put forward by each of the two houses of parliament and the military. With the NLD on course to gain a resounding majority, it is almost certain that the NLD nominee would win the presidency. It is also certain that the winner would contend with at least one vice president from the military.
The sense of "arrival," the virtual assurance of gaining power, at last, has reflected in Suu Kyi's bearing. Known for both her elegance and boldly defiant demeanor, she has become even more assertive in recent months.
She said just before the election: "When I'm asked whether we will be able to run a good government ... I always say it can't be worse than what we've had already." Given the daunting challenges the Thein Sein administration has tackled over five years -- many of them successfully -- and its cooperative relationship with the military, some might dispute that statement.
But one thing the Lady is not known for is self-doubt.