Burma: National League for Democracy wins historic vote for change

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) has won a crushing and historic victory in the November 8 election in Burma (also known as Myanmar).

Results were not final at the time of publication, but the NLD was on target to win more than 270 of the 330 elected seats (82%) in the People's Assembly, and more than 150 of the 168 elected seats (90%) in the House of Nationalities.

The military-created ruling party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has been emphatically kicked out of power. It won less than 8% of the seats in both houses, down from its current 58%.

Ethnic-based parties in the more remote areas won the remaining seats, with the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy winning at least 11 seats in the People's Assembly.

Even with such a dominant result, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has been reluctant to claim victory — and is trying to hose down her supporters' celebrations. “It is important not to provoke the candidates who didn't win, to make them feel bad,” she said.

In spite of the scale of this historic result, and because of this clear directive, celebrations have been low key.

After more than 50 years of military rule, this outcome is remarkable and, for many, still unbelievable.

Richard Horsey, an adviser to the International Crisis Group, has noted: “The 2015 election could be the first relatively credible election since 1960, and, if all goes well, it will be the first transfer of power in Myanmar through an election since 1960. So that makes it a very big deal.”

The NLD's campaign has been short on policy details, but the simple demand for democracy and freedom from military oppression has proven almost universally appealing.

Among the crowds at the NLD headquarters in Yangon on election night, a middle-aged man in tears explained why, to him, it is such a big deal: “See all these young people here. They just want freedom.”

An older woman who remembers the 1990 election, when the outcome was similar but the military annulled the results, said: “We don't want to fall into their trap.”

That is, to avoid giving the military any excuse for a coup. For some, there remains doubt that the military will allow itself to be voted out of power.

With this overwhelming mandate, the NLD is set to change the country's direction. Still, the military remains a potent force.

The Commander in Chief of the Defence Services hand picks 25% of the members of both houses of parliament from his ranks. He also appoints the ministers of defence, home affairs and border affairs.

Thus, even though the NLD has won about 80% of the 330 elected seats in the People's Assembly, under the constitution the military is allocated 110 non-elected seats in this house. This will diminish the NLD's majority in both houses to closer to 60%. This is sufficient, however, for the NLD to choose the president.

The process of electing the president, which will take four-to-five months, is also rigged in favour of the military. Elected members of the People's Assembly, elected members of the House of Nationalities and the military appointees each nominate a presidential candidate.

A combined sitting of both houses then chooses the president from these three nominees. The two losing nominees become vice presidents. The military is, thus, guaranteed at least a vice president.

Suu Kyi, plainly the most popular political leader in the country, is ineligible to be president because the constitution bars anyone who has foreign children or spouse from holding the post. Suu Kyi has two British sons with her deceased British husband, Michael Aris.

On this crucial issue, she has infuriated the ruling party and their military backers in the past few weeks by stating: “I'm going to be above the president.”

She was even more emphatic on this point after the election, saying in a BBC interview that she would be “making all the decisions as the leader of the winning party”.

The NLD wants to change the constitution, which was drafted by the military in 2008 with the aim of maintaining power. But, to change the constitution requires 75% of the joint parliament's vote. As the military is guaranteed 25% of the seats, it has a veto.

Changing the constitution will be one of the first battlegrounds. In a press conference two days before the poll, Suu Kyi foreshadowed this battle: “Constitutions are made by people and they are not eternal … If the support of the people is strong enough, I don't see why we should not be able to overcome a 'minor problem' like amending the constitution.”

These elections may be the fairest for 50 years and appear to have brought real change, but because of these undemocratic aspects of the constitution, many observers still regard them as “flawed”.

Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said on November 4: “Long lines of voters on November 8 won't make these fundamentally flawed elections free and fair.” He said the election “suffers from critical flaws, such as a biased election commission, a ruling party-dominated state media, and laws and policies preventing [the] Rohingya [ethnic minority] and others from voting and standing as candidates.”

Since 1988, Suu Kyi, now 70, has struggled non-violently against the military regime. She spent 15 years in jail. She would be well aware that “these elections won't substantively challenge [the military's] interests”, as David Mathieson from HRW said.

Suu Kyi said in February: “It's a question of the military coming to terms with the new situation. If they really want to move on to democracy then they must accept that civilian control, civilian authority should be supreme and that it's the people's right to choose the government.”

Winning the support of more than 80% of the 50 million people across the country should go some way in making them listen.

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