Can the NLD deliver?

Can the NLD deliver?

Myanmar opposition has a strong economic platform but no one capable of translating ideas into concrete actions.

An employee shows off new 10,000-kyat notes at a bank in Yangon.
An employee shows off new 10,000-kyat notes at a bank in Yangon.

With campaigning for Myanmar's forthcoming elections about to start officially in a few days, the main parties are putting their finishing touches on their policy platforms.

But the main pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), believes that a party manifesto and policies will not be crucial in deciding the outcome of the elections.

"Our trump card is the Lady, and people will vote for her alone," said chief political adviser Hantha Myint, referring to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But that has not prevented the NLD leadership from putting a tremendous amount of work into developing policy approaches. They too realise that the key issue in this election will be the economy.

According to a recent independent national survey, nearly three out of four voters felt Thein Sein's economic policy had been a failure and they are hoping to see change after the elections.

"Economic reform is more important than politics," Dr Phone Win, who runs a Yangon microfinance company with 2,000 SME clients, told Asia Focus.

Most businesses in Myanmar would agree, although they would also want political stability -- if not continuity.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has taken a simplistic approach and is promising more jobs if it is re-elected. The Farmers' Development Party, meanwhile, wants to position itself as the only party with the interests of the rural voters at heart -- pushing land rights and microcredit.

One of the new smaller parties, the National Development Party -- the brainchild of former presidential adviser Dr Nay Zin Latt -- is wooing young professionals and businesspeople. Economic policy is a cornerstone of its electoral appeal, according to its founder.

"The party's policy and programme is aimed at making the life better for farmers and labourers; with a stress on job creation and encouraging entrepreneurs," he told Asia Focus recently.

Foreign investment is needed, especially for the transfer of technology and management skills. "The aim is to build up the country to be able to compete globally and internationally," he said.

"But we need to find a balance: we cannot refuse foreign investment, but we must also develop local industries."

But all the political parties except the NLD lack a cohesive strategy for economic development, according to Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar at Macquarie University in Australia.

"The big difference is that the NLD's approach to economic policy deals with the fundamentals, rather than simple, superficial proposals and propaganda," he said.

"The NLD has spent considerable time and resources in developing policies designed to transform Myanmar's economy, and not just to win an election."

"These policies are liberal, market-friendly, and founded on the creation of the laws and institutions that history and experience elsewhere tells us drive transformational growth; they encompass notions of the rule of law, and of social justice."

The NLD approach has been welcomed by many Myanmar businessmen. "It looks good and is based on sound economic principles," said a leading local business consultant but declined to be identified.

The party's economists have sought the advice of international experts for their platform, which is expected to be released soon. Some thought is being given to possibly including excise duties -- or "sin tax" -- on alcohol, cigarettes and junk food, according to sources close to the NLD economic team.

There is still some tinkering to be done, said Soe Win, the team's leader and a central executive committee member. The policy paper proposes five pillars: boosting agriculture; prudent fiscal and monetary policy; reforming government administration; creating a functioning infrastructure; and establishing a knowledge economy, which builds on the initiative and creativity of the Myanmar people.

"Improving agricultural productivity is a priority," said Myo Myint, another senior member of the party's economic team and a former Finance Ministry official under the late dictator Ne Win.

"This would involve granting the country's farmers their land rights, creating greater and easier access to credit, and ensuring seeds, tractors and milling equipment are available, as well as enhancing market access."

Food security must be guaranteed as soon as possible, according to the draft policy paper. Agriculture still contributes 40% of the country's GDP, while employing 70% of the labour force.

The party's economists are aware that improving agricultural potential alone will not transform the country; for that the industrial and services sectors must become the main engines of growth in the longer term.

Many businessmen agree. "We need to develop the country and reduce poverty as quickly as possible," said Aye Lwin, who runs a small construction company in Yangon. "The first focus should be the agriculture sector. One way would be to promote joint ventures, like in Dawei: to bring in foreign investment, create jobs, and generate income."

Harnessing the creativity of the country's workforce -- especially the younger generation -- is also an NLD priority. "Great stress will be put on developing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)," said Min Khin, also a committee member.

Another key proposal is to develop fiscal and monetary stability. The party wants to increase revenue from taxation without putting an undue burden on poorer people. "We will practise progressive taxation," said Min Khin.

As well, the central bank would be made truly independent of government as part of a thorough overhaul of the government, which will focus on creating institutions to support the rule of law, property rights, transparency and accountability.

The plan is to streamline government, making lean and efficient. "With some 31 ministries -- all with two deputy ministers -- government administration is inefficient, lacks collective control and coordination, and is a burden on this country and its economy," said Myo Myint.

For Dr Phone Win, this is a crucial reform if the country is to prosper. "More freedom from bureaucratic regulation is what's needed most, he said. "As soon as a law is passed, there's a multitude of directives and instructions; more than 10 instructions and directives, often replacing a previous one -- every two or three months another one is issued."

"While this looks wonderful on paper," said a Myanmar business consultant, "it is only on paper." Other analysts point to the lack of detailed sectoral plans or specific plans for the overhaul and privatisation of state-owned enterprises.

"It's a good start rather than a policy platform: it lays down some strong general principles but provides little in the way of detail," said George McLeod, a Myanmar specialist with PwC in Thailand. "The platform also sheds no light on tax rates, or the identities of state enterprises pinned for privatisation."

Many Myanmar businessmen and financial consultants who fear that while the NLD may have the right economic vision, it has no one to oversee implementation if it forms the government after the Nov 8 polls.

"The NLD's biggest problem is that they do not have any potential ministers in their ranks" said Thet Aung Min Latt, the CEO of Diamond Consultant Group. Many businessmen fear that an NLD-led government would be rudderless and as a result would not be any more rigorous than the administration of Thein Sein.

"At least they would start on a better footing than the previous government -- they have a coherent policy, they have a strategy and they have clearly stated priorities," said Khine Win, a political columnist and director of the Sandhi Governance Institute. "Boosting the agriculture sector has to be a high priority … and there need to be concerted efforts to reduce the widening gap between the rich and the poor."

"The country's resources are concentrated in a few hands. Vulnerable groups cannot change the power dynamics without political assistance," he said, referring to the cronies and siblings of former generals and ministers.

Some of those cronies have been courting the opposition leader, including Tayzar and Zaw Zaw -- donating to her Daw Khin Kyi Foundation and other projects. "There's nothing wrong with accepting their money, as long as there are no strings attached," said NLD MP Win Htein, a leading central executive member.

Already managers and staff in banks owned by the cronies and others who benefitted from their relationship with the previous military government are privately worried about their future.

For an NLD government, dealing with the cronies is going to be a very vexed issue. For the businessman and philanthropist Dr Phone Win there can be no half-measures. "Don't give space to the cronies: corruption and nepotism needs to be stamped out," he said. "The political and economic environment cannot change while the cronies are around."

But political considerations may loom too large. For example, when asked what an NLD-led government's first economic priority would be after the elections, its top strategists say it would be to change the constitution so that Aung San Suu Kyi could become president.

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