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Shankar Acharya: Myanmar's historic election

Now, with the election won, Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD face the challenge of successfully managing the transition to democracy

Shankar Acharya 

Shankar Acharya

A month ago, on November 8, most Indians were glued to the television watching the roller-coaster of results pouring in from the Bihar election. Commentators were quick to dub the election as "historic" for stopping the Modi-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), election-winning juggernaut in its tracks. Few paid attention to the truly historic election being conducted in Myanmar that same Sunday. It was the first reasonably free and fair national election held there since 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi's fledgling National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory, bagging 80 per cent of the constituencies nation-wide. That election win, occurring with Ms Suu Kyi already under house arrest, was ignored and later annulled by the ruling military government, in power since 1962.

Within 24 hours of the day-long election on November 8 (why did the Bihar elections have to take a month?!), it was clear that Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD were on their way to repeating a feat unprecedented in the annals of democratic elections.

Once the final results were tallied by November 21, the massive scale and spread of the NLD's victory became apparent. It even surprised some party supporters, not to mention the astonished government of President Thein Sein and the army-sponsored rival party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP - voted to power in the military "managed" election of 2010, when the NLD did not contest - lost 85 per cent of its seats in the lower house and 90 per cent in the upper house of parliament.

The full contours of the NLD's electoral achievement merit some elaboration. First, it was certainly not foreseen by most, if not all, analysts. The near-consensus view was that while Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD would do well in the election, the party would fail to win a majority in the parliament. Among the reasons commonly cited were:

  • The fact that the Constitution, drafted by the army in 2008, reserved 25 per cent of seats in each house for military appointees, thus, requiring an elected party to win at least 67 per cent of all seats up for election.

  • The USDP had all the advantages of five years of incumbency, resources and government support.

  • The semi-civilian government of Mr Sein had, since 2011, brought about notable political and economic reforms that had strengthened economic growth and significantly enhanced popular legal, media and civil freedoms.

  • In the ethnic areas (which account for about 40 per cent of Myanmar's population), incumbent ethnic parties had used the past four years to consolidate their positions.

  • The NLD's popularity was weakened by the absence of the older "1988 generation" amongst the candidates fielded.

  • Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD were being painted as "Muslim sympathisers" by the ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, led by some monks, called the Ma Ba Tha.
In fact, despite these muted pre-election expectations, the NLD won a massive mandate. In the National Parliament, the NLD won close to 80 per cent of the declared seats in both lower and upper houses, comfortably above the 67 per cent hurdle rate and virtually mirroring its victory in the 1990 election.

Shankar Acharya: Myanmar's historic election
Even after taking account of the 25 per cent of military appointees, the NLD would have about a 60-per-cent majority in each House. This meant that the NLD (led by Ms Suu Kyi) would choose the next President of Myanmar and one of the two Vice-Presidents, the second being designated by the military. It would also have control over legislation, but not over constitutional amendments, which require the consent of over 75 per cent of all voting members.

As noted earlier, the NLD's victory came mainly at the expense of its principal rival, the army-backed USDP, which was decimated, with its seat strength reduced to less than 10 per cent in each house. Furthermore, and contrary to expectations, the NLD did very well in ethnic areas, with only the Arakan National Party and the Shan National League for Democracy gaining some presence in the national legislature. All the other parties together managed a paltry total of 14 seats in the lower house and nine in the upper house.

Third, and this is rarely commented on, the NLD performed handsomely in state and regional assemblies (Hluttaws), winning over 75 per cent of the 630 contested seats and, thus, gaining control of most of these assemblies, barring the Rakhine and Shan state assemblies. The NLD also won 21 of the separately elected 29 positions of Ministers of Ethnic Affairs at the state and regional levels.

In short, Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD won commanding majorities at every level of government covered in these elections. It is hard to find an example of a more comprehensive popular mandate for a leader and her party in a free national (and provincial) election in the last 50 years. There is certainly no historical parallel to a leader and her party winning such landslide mandates in two successive, free, national elections separated by 25 years.

Now, with the election fought and won, Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD face the enormous challenge of successfully managing the delicate and extended transition from a military-guided civilian government to a true democracy. After 50 years of military rule and four years of a semi-civilian "guided democracy", the challenges and pitfalls are huge, especially given the peculiarities of the current constitution, which reserves some important special powers for the military, including control over the ministries of defence, internal order and border affairs. At this early stage, a month after the election (and two months before the new Parliament even assembles) all that one can say is that the early auguries are promising. President Sein, the army chief and the Speaker have all promised cooperation. Perhaps even more significantly, the former head of the military government, Than Shwe (who ruled Myanmar for 20 years till 2011), has recently met Ms Suu Kyi and has reportedly anointed her the "future leader of Myanmar."

With good luck and wise leadership, let us hope that Myanmar forges the template for peaceful transitions from military dictatorship to democracy.

The author is honorary professor at ICRIER, and former chief economic adviser to the Government of India
These views are his own

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First Published: Wed, December 09 2015. 21:50 IST