Celebrating democracy

Nov 14th 2015

– Politics in Myanmar YANGON

THE excitement was palpable. In the pre-dawn dark of November 8th, 30 minutes before voting in Myanmar’s general election began, the queue at a polling station in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, stretched for several blocks. In midmorning a line of voters trailing through a monastery’s leafy grounds suddenly shifted to allow a frail elderly woman, carried up a flight of stairs by two young men, to cast her ballot. Through blazing midday sun and afternoon rainstorms, Myanmar’s citizens turned out to vote in their country’s first competitive general election since 1990—most of them, it appeared, to deliver a blow to the army, which has controlled the country for half a century.

Full results are not yet in, but as The Economist went to press, the National League for Democracy (NLD), an opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a longtime democracy activist, had won 291 parliamentary seats, compared with just 33 taken by the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and 35 by assorted ethnic parties and independent candidates. Miss Suu Kyi believes the NLD is on track to win at least 75% of the seats contested—enough to give it a majority, despite the constitution’s provision that one-quarter of the seats must be reserved for the army.

The NLD has also performed well in local elections held at the same time as the national one. The party has so far taken 367 seats in state and regional parliaments, compared with the USDP’s 46 and 27 won by ethnic parties. The USDP seems resigned. “We lost,” admits its boss, Htay Oo. Thein Sein, the president, has congratulated Miss Suu Kyi, as has the army chief.

Miss Suu Kyi will not succeed Mr Thein Sein: the constitution drafted by the army deliberately ensures that by preventing anyone from taking the job who has a foreign spouse or children. But assuming the NLD gets a majority, she will decide who the president will be (by February), and, as she admits, will tell him what to do. She is already acting presidentially, calling for “national reconciliation”, talks with Mr Thein Sein and the army, and urging her supporters to be magnanimous in victory.

That has not stopped them from rejoicing. On election night, revellers danced atop cars, waving inflatable red batons and singing party songs. Kya Ma, a 47-year-old public-health teacher, said that in previous elections, “You did not even tell your friends if you voted NLD.”

Local and international observers agreed that the election went smoothly. Fears of widespread disenfranchisement due to error-ridden voter lists proved unfounded. Votes were counted openly, in the presence of party representatives. Advance votes were, however, harder to monitor. In the previous general election (boycotted by the NLD) in 2010, such ballots swung some constituencies in the USDP’s favour. This time there were scattered reports of boxes full of suspiciously fresh and similar-looking advance ballots being delivered to polling stations. But the more constituencies the NLD wins, the more such chicanery amounts to little more than fiddling at the margins.

Cabinet ministers lost their seats to political novices. The NLD achieved a near-sweep in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, where most residents are connected in some way with the army or the current government. Before the election, U Tin Aye, a former USDP official who heads Myanmar’s election commission, said he wanted his old party to win fairly. But the USDP underestimated how unpopular it is: a USDP victory proved incompatible with a free election. Intentionally or not, the government chose the latter and paid the price.

But whereas the army’s proxy party has been defeated, the army itself remains powerful. Its faction in the parliament gives it political clout that voters, judging from the results, do not want it to have. It will still appoint the ministers of defence, interior and border affairs. This will keep the police and the powerful General Administrative Department—the country’s civil service—under military control. Whether a civilian president will be able to rein in the army remains unclear.

Apart from one public appearance soon after the election, Miss Suu Kyi has kept a low profile. That will not last. Voters, after all, chose the NLD not because of its policies (these are vague), but because of Miss Suu Kyi’s record of struggle against the army, including years of house arrest, and her charisma. Without constitutional reform, the highest office she could accept would be as the parliament’s speaker. But using her personal status to control the presidency would be risky. What would happen if her puppet tires of having his strings pulled? And what would happen to the NLD should Miss Suu Kyi, who is 70 years old, fall ill? In opposition the NLD never had to answer such questions; as a ruling party it would have to.

It will be a short honeymoon for Miss Suu Kyi. She will face international pressure to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority which the government declared stateless and which therefore had no vote. She has so far shied away from addressing their plight directly. After her victory—and the implicit rebuke it delivered to Buddhist nationalists, who tried to undermine Miss Suu Kyi’s campaign by accusing her of coddling Muslims—many will rightly expect more.

People may not know what Miss Suu Kyi stands for on many domestic issues, but they do know they want a better government, more jobs and a form of development that does not shovel money into the pockets of generals. The army is not out of politics yet, but voters will expect Miss Suu Kyi to deliver.

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