YANGON — For years, the political party was banned and its leading members jailed or placed under house arrest. But in an historic, once-unthinkable turnaround, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will be able to form a single-party government early next year in Myanmar, formerly one of the world’s most durable military dictatorships.
After a long, frustrating wait for the party, the latest set of results announced at noon on Nov. 12 by the country’s Union Election Commission showed the NLD had gained the two-thirds majority it needed to govern alone, with the party taking 348 national parliament seats, 19 more than it needed for a so-called “super majority.” The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party had won a mere 40 national parliament seats.
Even as it waited for confirmation of its ruling party status, the NLD has been “moving on,” U Win Htein, a close aide to Suu Kyi and a retiring NLD parliamentarian, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
The military’s automatic allotment of 25% of all parliamentary seats means that any party must have 67% of all seats to form a government. The NLD already passed that mark in the 224-seat upper house and today secure the confirmation it needed in the lower house in order to put together a government.
“We have so much to do, we have priorities, we have been moving on already,” Win Htein said on Thursday afternoon.
Among top priorities for Suu Kyi and the party was to engineer a smooth transition from the government of President Thein Sein and proposals to streamline and possibly reduce the size of the cabinet under an NLD-led government, he noted. Other important issues include amending the constitution — which blocks Suu Kyi from the presidency due to restrictions against nationals with foreign spouses and children — and engaging with the peace process between the government and ethnic armed groups, he added. .
In 1990, Suu Kyi led the NLD to an election landslide, only for the army to annul the result and throw her under house arrest for most of the next 20 years.
The 1990 elections came less than two years after Myanmar’s army viciously crushed student-led protests in Yangon and other major cities. The demonstrations were spurred by economic troubles but had spiralled into a mass pro-democracy movement headed by Suu Kyi. Despite living abroad then, she quickly earned widespread respect, based partly on her being the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, Gen. Aung San.
This time, the army — an institution founded by her late father — has not only promised to honor the outcome, but has already congratulated the NLD. Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has also agreed to a proposed handover meeting suggested by Suu Kyi.
The results announced by the election commission at at noon on Nov. 12 confirm that the NLD now has the numbers to ensure Suu Kyi’s handpicked candidate for the presidency will take office in early 2016.
Suu Kyi has said her proxy will take orders from her and will, in turn, nominate government ministers based on her choices.
However, the army will still have the power to nominate key positions to oversee security matters, such as the ministers for defense and home affairs. The military retains its veto-wielding 25% bloc of seats in the national and state or regional-level parliaments. It also controls affiliated businesses and bureaucracies.
The military’s prerogatives are written into Myanmar’s constitution, which bars Suu Kyi from becoming president on the grounds that she was married to a foreigner and her sons hold foreign citizenship. A National Security and Defense Council comprising the president, vice-presidents, parliament speaker and army chief, is also written into the constitution. This council can usurp power from the government in the event of a national emergency.
After the all the results have been announced and finalized, Suu Kyi will meet current President Thein Sein, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as well as parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, at the NLD’s request.
While Suu Kyi has said that she wanted to discuss “national reconciliation” first with the outgoing government, NLD party elder Tin Oo said that constitutional change was likely to top the legislative agenda when the NLD-dominated national parliament convenes early in 2016.
“The constitution must be reformed in line with the universal principles of democracy,” Tin Oo told the NAR on Nov. 9. He later told news wires he believed that Suu Kyi would assume the presidency at some stage in the future.
Next up for Suu Kyi, however, is likely a victory speech in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and the site of her first, epochal political speech on Aug. 26 1988 to an estimated half-million people near the country’s best-known pagoda, the Shwedagon.
Next week, Suu Kyi will make for the super-highways and the monolithic administrative buildings of Naypyitaw, the army-built capital, for the final session of the current parliament. There, the USDP holds almost 80% of seats, a legacy of its own landslide in 2010 elections, held by the military junta and widely criticized as rigged.
The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections, further undermining their legitimacy. But a week after the vote, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, marking the beginning of an unexpected liberalization that facilitated her winning a parliamentary seat in an April 2012 by-election, along with 42 of her party colleagues.
That left the NLD as the biggest opposition party, although with nowhere near the numbers to effectively challenge the dominance of the USDP and the 25% military bloc.
The USDP government led by Thein Sein continued to take steps towards liberalization over the last few years. It freed political prisoners, unshackled a long-oppressed media, opened Myanmar to foreign investment and tourism, and oversaw rising economic growth. But in the end, the party could not compete with the NLD’s history of defiance and, above all, Suu Kyi’s aura as a freedom fighter.
U.S. President Barack Obama has congratulated his counterpart Thein Sein on holding an open election. The European Union and the Carter Center, which have election observation missions in Myanmar, also praised the election as having been mostly free.
In the annulled 1990 election, the NLD received just under 60% of votes, which translated into over 80% of seats, as Myanmar’s first-past-the-post voting system means that winner takes all. By contrast, the National Unity Party, which as a junta-linked party was expected to win, took 21% of the vote, but only 2% of seats.
The NLD’s win now comes at the expense of ethnic minority parties whose strongholds were thought to be in areas along Myanmar’s borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. It is also in these areas that Suu Kyi’s party, long thought of as only representing the interests of the Bamar or Myanmar majority, was predicted to struggle.
But in one of the biggest surprises of the election, the NLD polled well in minority areas, knocking out most ethnic party candidates.Ethnic parties have won just over 100 seats out of the 1,015 announced by noon on Nov. 12.
Indications were that “the Suu Kyi factor” had swung voters away from ethnic parties, even in remote Chin State, a thinly populated, largely Christian region long oppressed by the Buddhist-dominated military.
Cheery Zahau, a human rights activist who stood as a candidate for the Chin Progressive Party, but who lost out to the NLD, said that it was difficult to compete with Suu Kyi’s star power and her ubiquitous presence on posters and campaign material.
“The Chin voters thought they were voting for Daw Suu,” Zahau said.
Additional reporting by Gwen Robinson, Chief editor, NARShow