Ethnic parties give wake-up call to NLD

Ethnic parties give wake-up call to NLD

A Myanmar Election Commission staffer counts votes in the presence of poll monitors at a voting station in Yangon after one of the by-elections held on Saturday. (Reuters photo)
A Myanmar Election Commission staffer counts votes in the presence of poll monitors at a voting station in Yangon after one of the by-elections held on Saturday. (Reuters photo)

Analysts are poring over the results of Myanmar's by-elections which took place on Saturday, vainly trying to read the tea leaves, and perhaps reading too much into them. But it was certainly a wake-up call for both major parties -- the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and the previous governing party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) -- but the lessons that can be drawn for the future are limited.

"Myanmar's electoral system is so convoluted and the political landscape so different from constituency to constituency, it's hard to project much from these results onto the 2020 elections," the prominent writer and historian Thant Myint-U told the Bangkok Post in an email.

Larry Jagan is a Myanmar specialist and former BBC World Service news editor for the region.

But with only 13 seats contested -- five in the national parliament and the rest in regional parliaments -- they provide very thin evidence upon which to basis any predictions for the 2020 national elections. This is in fact the second round of by-elections during this government's tenure, and was largely the result of vacancies caused by the deaths of the incumbents, or in the case of the Yangon constituency of Tamwe, was vacated by Win Myint's promotion to president.

One trend that is discernible in last Saturday's by-elections is the NLD's waning support throughout the country, but particularly in ethnic areas. The ruling party only won seven of the seats up for grabs in Saturday's by-elections, the rest going to other parties, the USDP, ethnic-based parties and one independent. It means the NLD won only 54% of the seats.

This is far below the party's expectations, which boasted they would win a resounding majority of the seats being contested. Bo Bo Oo, leading NLD MP in Yangon emphatically told the Bangkok Post on the eve of the vote: "We will win all the seats, certainly we will win them all, no question!"

Of course, this was the party line at the time, with the most senior member of the party -- and Mandalay's chief minister -- Zaw Myint Maung suggesting the NLD would garner at least 12 of the seats, if not all 13. Other party activists had more sober assessments, including Ye Min Oo, a prominent NLD member on the party's economic committee, conceding there were some seats that were by no means secure, especially the Yangon regional parliamentary seat of Seikkan, previously held by the NLD, and the seats in the ethnic areas.

He said the Yangon constituency was dominated by public servants, mostly working in the local port authority, whom have become disillusioned with the NLD government and are hankering for a return to the old administration under former president Thein Sein, he suggested. Allegations of incompetence, abuse of power and corruption against the regional government have also dented the NLD's popularity among Yangon's public servants and the business community, all of whom enthusiastically voted for the NLD in 2015.

The other by election results showed the NLD has lost its position within ethnic areas. Ethnic people and politicians have become disillusioned with the NLD government over its failure to improve the situation in ethnic areas and the lack of progress in the peace process, another senior member of the party, Hanthar Myint, told the Bangkok Post recently. "We need to do more to rebuild their trust," he said. But the target is really 2020 he suggested, and that "still gives us time".

But the reaction among the ethnic voters suggests in fact that this is a forlorn hope. The prominent Chin political activist, Cheery Zahau, who contested the 2015 elections, told the Bangkok Post after their candidate's victory in the Chin parliamentary contest: "We are absolutely ecstatic ... We celebrated well into the night. It augurs well for 2020," she predicted.

The Kachin result was less encouraging. The battle for the Upper House seat, between the Kachin party candidate and the NLD allowed the USDP to sneak in and take the seat. For the Kachin, according to a local activist, this is the worst possible result: "A pro-military man representing us while the army is still trying to destroy us, and has forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee their homes".

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi visited Chin state and internally displaced people in Kachin state shortly before the elections in what seemed a belated effort to rally support for the NLD -- though it was not officially "campaigning" as executive members of the government are forbidden by the constitution to take part in party politics.

But the visit to the Kachin may in fact have done their party a disservice, as Kachin community and NGO activists reacted bitterly to what they saw as a disingenuous visit by the NLD leader. "Aung San Suu Kyi is dead to us," an ethnic Kachin political activist told the Bangkok Post recently, but declined to be identified. "Completely dead to us!"

The NLD has been quick to react to the dismal showing in the by-elections. "The by-election results are a lesson for us learn from," Zaw Myint Maung told journalists after the unofficial results came out. "Now we can prepare for 2020."

"It's a wake-up call," admitted Ye Min Oo. But his worry is that the declining voter turnout is the most ominous sign for the future. "It we cannot mobilise our base, as we did in 2015, there is a danger that with the smaller turnout, other parties could gain the advantage."

The other more important indicator from these elections is that the USDP is fast becoming a spent force. It is a damaged brand. Strong NLD supporters, who may have doubts about the party, may have been left frustrated and disillusioned, but have no intentions of supporting the USDP. They are too heavily identified with the military.

"We hate the military, we have always hated the military, we will always hate the military," said Yangon taxi driver Win Lwin. He said he would continue to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, though he might consider supporting Ko Ko Gyi after she has gone. A reference to the 88 Generation student leader, who recently formed his own party, but did not contest the by-elections.

So in the wake of these by-election results a multitude of new parties are likely to emerge. Some that will hope to replace the USDP as the key conservative, civilian-military establishment party to give the NLD a run for their money in its main strong holds -- Yangon, Mandalay and the Burman hinterland. Behind the scenes, some businessmen are also working on forming a new pro-business party to take advantage of the dissatisfaction with the NLD's economic performance.

The race for 2020 is now well and truly on, and the next two years are going to be increasingly unpredictable, with only one certainty: The ethnic parties are going to grow in strength and play a very influential role in the next elections.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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