ANALYSIS: Myanmar's by-elections sets tone for real thing in 2015
By Peter Janssen Mar 28, 2012, 14:01 GMT
Bangkok - If Myanmar's by-elections on Sunday are not quite a breakthrough for democracy in a country that has seen five decades of military rule, they should not be written off as an April Fool's joke.
It is a politically significant election, even if only 45 of the 500 seats in parliament are contested, or 9 per cent of the total.
It would be the first election ever contested by Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy campaigner who was under house arrest during the past two general elections, held in May 1990 and November 2010.
Suu Kyi was released from her latest period of detention six days after the last polls were won by a handsome majority by the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
But her real delivery from the political wilderness came in August when newly elected President Thein Sein invited her to the capital, Naypyitaw, for private talks, the content of which has never been fully disclosed by either side.
Whatever was said, the talks led to a rapid succession of reformist moves by Thein Sein, including releasing political prisoners, loosening controls on the local press and paving the way for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to contest the by-elections.
It was widely anticipated that Suu Kyi would win her seat in Kawhmu, south of Yangon, and her NLD colleagues might win half of 43 seats they are contesting.
It was also widely anticipated that Suu Kyi would become the leader of the opposition after the elections.
Thein Sein and House Speaker Shwe Mann, the leading moderates in the USDP, are keen to have Suu Kyi as opposition head, according to insiders.
'This reform-minded group in the parliament, led by Shwe Mann, is likely to cooperate with Aung San Suu Kyi to improve their leverage against those who have been reluctant to change,' said Win Min, a Myanmar expert at Harvard University in the United States.
But the cooperation would only extend to issues that do not directly threaten the military establishment, which holds 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats through appointment, he said.
The moderates within the USDP are trying to push through reforms that would lead to visible improvements for the people of impoverished Myanmar and translate into growing popularity for the party come the next general elections, planned for 2015.
By bringing Suu Kyi into mainstream politics, they have already tackled one of the biggest obstacles to Myanmar's economic development: sanctions that have been imposed on the country by Western democracies for the past two decades.
The European Union is to decide in April whether to lift its sanctions on the country, once a pariah for its poor human rights record. Whether the EU sanctions are renewed depends largely on the conduct and outcome of the by-elections.
There have been complaints of dead people appearing on eligible voter lists, entire villages being dropped from others, USDP vote-buying tactics and incidents of officials blocking the NLD campaigns, but such complaints are hardly unusual for elections in the region.
'We should not be expecting a Swedish election campaign at this stage,' one European diplomat in Yangon said.
The US was expected to opt for a more gradual easing of sanctions, in keeping with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recipe of one reform, one reward.
One of the main obstacles to a complete lifting of sanctions remained the ongoing conflicts in Myanmar's ethnic minority hinterlands.
Despite efforts to rush through ceasefires with the main rebel groups there, the government has so far failed to end fighting in Kachin State in northern Myanmar, where 75,000 civilians have been displaced by the conflict since June.
The by-elections might lead to some interesting new dynamics on the long-simmering ethnic minority issue.
'Both the government and Aung San Suu Kyi are going to do their best to win over the non-Burman ethnic voters before and after the by-election, so what the ethnic groups should do is make the most of it,' said Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald News Agency, a rebel publication.
But the real popularity contest was likely to begin after Sunday when the opposition and government parties in parliament gear up for the real litmus test for change in 2015.
'How much Aung San Suu Kyi and her party can play a role in the parliament in cooperating with moderate-minded ex-military leaders will set the precedent for the 2015 elections outcome,' Win Min said.
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