IRI’s Steve Cima Looks at Burma’s 2015 Elections in Asia Wall Street Journal

Elections Will Test Burma’s New Democracy
Asia Wall Street Journal
By Steve Cima

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Myanmar this week comes as the clock is ticking for Burma’s major political parties in the run-up to the 2015 national elections. As many as 70 political parties could compete in a country that has been plagued by civil war and ethnic violence for generations. Among these parties will be two major forces: the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Government reforms initiated over the past few years have brought about greater voter expectations, meaning the parties will have to offer a clear vision for the future and concrete plans on how they will keep the country moving in the right direction. Yet as voters have become more sophisticated, political parties are still struggling to find their voices.

While the USDP may point to tangible economic development and political reform achievements, the NLD can counter that achievements were a long time coming, with gaps remaining in areas such as economic equality, human rights, and democratization. NLD boycotted the 2010 elections that brought the USDP to power, but was successful in the landmark 2012 by-elections, winning 43 out of 46 seats. However, no one should assume the same outcome. The recent Indonesian presidential election demonstrated how quickly a divisive and hard-fought race can lead to a tussle over the democratic process.

The NLD has focused primarily on government unwillingness to amend the military-drafted constitution that is seen as the main barrier to real democratic change. This includes an article that forbids anyone with a spouse or children who are not Burma citizens from becoming president, effectively banning Aung San Suu Kyi from assuming office. A recent nationwide poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed that 64% of respondents supported repealing the article when Aung San Suu Kyi was mentioned. But it looks increasingly like the NLD may have to compete in an election without any changes to the constitution.

While the NLD’s campaign strategy will likely adapt to this fact as the election approaches, Ms. Suu Kyi would be wise to not put too much stock in the international community’s ability to pressure the government for constitutional reforms. An imperfect election will still be viewed as an important step forward in the democratic transition and will probably trump any perceived need for immediate constitutional changes.

Instead, the NLD should focus on improving its internal organization to maximize its sparse financial resources and make the best use of its human resources. Its many highly motivated activists should be a formidable campaign asset. Beyond calls for democratic reforms, the NLD will also need to address issues pertinent to ordinary voters such as unemployment, security and rising prices.

The ruling USDP enjoys all the benefits of incumbency. It has the resources to get its message out, an organized and disciplined national network of supporters, and the means to reward supporters for their efforts. The party also has administrative control over most of the country and the ability to clamp down on politically disadvantageous rhetoric or activities under the guise of ensuring security and stability.

Citizens recognize the USDP has increased development and improved the economy, initiated political reforms including reduced restrictions on the press, greater freedom of assembly and the release of hundreds of political prisoners. While the situation is far from perfect, even the government’s sharpest critics must concede that much has been accomplished in a short period of time.

But the USDP is still closely associated with the junta that ruled the country for decades until 2011, and many question its commitment to real democratization. The word among some on the street is that the junta merely changed their clothes since former generals hold nearly all significant “civilian” government and party positions. While support for democratic processes remains high—the same IRI poll found that 76% of Burmese agree that democracy is better than any other form of government—only one-quarter of citizens believe the USDP supports democratic reforms compared to almost half who said the same of the NLD. The USDP’s message of national development and tangible achievements may fall on deaf ears if it is unable to convince voters of its democratic credentials.

Both parties will need to address toxic and polarizing issues such as communal violence, primarily directed at Muslims, and the ban on inter-faith marriage. If mishandled, these issues could derail the election process. More than 50 smaller political parties represent different ethnic groups. Their support could decide which party leads the ruling coalition.

Burmese citizens have waited for generations for the opportunity to choose their own representatives. The future of politics in Burma will depend in part on political parties’ efforts to organize their message and give voters a clear and informed choice in the run-up the 2015 elections. The stage is set for an electoral tussle between the ruling and opposition parties; hopefully the people of Burma will be beneficiaries of a strong campaign next year.

Mr. Cima is director for Burma at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to advancing freedom and democracy.

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