Transitions

Burma’s Presidential Race Takes Off

The 2015 presidential election campaign in Burma is already underway. During his visit to the United States in last week, Shwe Mann, the former junta’s No. 3 and now speaker of the house in Burma’s parliament, has officially announced that he will run for president two years from now. Since the current president, Thein Sein, ...

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

The 2015 presidential election campaign in Burma is already underway. During his visit to the United States in last week, Shwe Mann, the former junta’s No. 3 and now speaker of the house in Burma’s parliament, has officially announced that he will run for president two years from now. Since the current president, Thein Sein, is unlikely to campaign again for the job, this means that Shwe Mann (shown in the photo above) is now set to become the presidential nominee of the ruling USDP party. (Shwe Mann became the head of the party after Thein Sein resigned as its chairman last month.) So it looks like Shwe Mann will be entering the race against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who also recently announced that she’ll be running for the presidency.

A bit of background may help to understand the context.

First, the current, military-drafted constitution stipulates that the president is elected indirectly. The president is selected by a committee consisting of representatives from the three different branches of parliament: the upper house, the lower house, and the military members of the parliament who control a quarter of seats in both houses. Each group nominates a candidate as a vice president, and then the entire committee selects the president from the three vice presidential nominees.

Second, the constitution bars anyone married to a foreigner or who has children that are foreign citizens. Aung San Suu Kyi had a British husband who died in late 1999 when the Lady (as we Burmese often refer to her) was under house arrest. Since her children have British nationalities, she would be barred on both fronts. While many are clamoring for the prohibition to be struck down, it’s not easy to amend the key clauses of the constitution. All amendments require both a national referendum and over 75 percent support in parliament, where the military controls 25 percent through reserved seats.

Third, the 2015 election is likely to take place in the context of continuing political and social instability given that the civil war, racial and religious riots, and labor and land rights protests are not close to being resolved. Such instability could determine the new administration’s capacity to govern following the 2015 elections. A persistent concern is that such instability could be used to justify the reversal of the current political transition and the return of military administration. Were this to happen, however, it would be much subtler than this "return to the dark age of military rule."

The critical question for many sober observers is not whether Aung San Suu Kyi will win the 2015 election, but whether she can successfully govern an impoverished country plagued by ethnic, racial, and religious violence unless she has the assistance of the old guard. She has little experience of government, and lately she has been staging a political one-woman show without giving much attention to the institutionalization of her own party (let alone the whole opposition movement). She has yet to explain to the public (and even her own hardcore supporters) the political dialogue that she has been conducting with the government, though she loves to talk about "a need for transparency, accountability, and a change of mindset" and other high-minded abstractions. The only information that we have about negotiations between the Lady and the government comes from senior leaders of the ruling party.

The election will be an important one for Burma’s transition, and there’s reason to be optimistic about the outcome. But it’s important to keep in mind the practical aspects involved in running a country, much less one that that is suffering the complex issues that Burma faces. The ongoing turmoil (especially racial and religious violence deriving from Burman-Buddhist nationalism) appears to weaken Aung San Suu Kyi’s hand and should force her to concede that she can’t run the country alone without receiving help from the military, the ruling party, and even their business cronies. Some key players in the international community (above all European diplomats, and the Americans to a lesser extent) now appear to be convinced that a power-sharing arrangement between Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling party offers the best insurance policy against a possible reversal of the transition process. No wonder that Shwe Mann, during his U.S. visit, made a point of saying that he doesn’t out a post-election coalition government with the opposition party if it’s in the national interest. A few days later, a USDP daily paper published a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 68th birthday celebration, where Shwe Mann was a prominent presence.

Political horse-trading between the ruling party and Aung San Suu Kyi is to be welcomed if it leads to an inclusive pact to promote liberalization and democracy. In the worst-case scenario, though, a coalition between the two sides could lead merely to a slightly expanded version of the present ruling elite, one that would not necessarily govern in the people’s interest. If that happens, the 2015 election might turn out to be something of a sideshow.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

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