October 24, 2016

A landmark victory in the history of Myanmar election for the party of Aung San Suu Kyi

CHEATED before, many voters in Myanmar were anxious as the counting of votes from elections held on November 8th dragged on. But now, five days later, the party most voters chose, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s independence hero, passed the landmark it needed. By midday on November 13th, the fifth anniversary of Miss Suu Kyi’s release from her most recent stint of house-arrest, the NLD had won 348 of the 664 seats in the two houses of parliament. This majority means it will win an indirect election for the presidency to be held by February. The army, which has ruled Myanmar (or Burma, as it was until 1989) for 53 years, albeit in mufti since 2011, has suffered a heavy blow.

It is the culmination of an extraordinary week in Myanmar. On polling day, the excitement was palpable. In the pre-dawn dark, 30 minutes before voting 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—a poll which the NLD also won easily, only to see the army refuse to honour the people’s verdict.

Despite the army’s liberalising reforms of recent years the NLD has done even better in this election than in 1990, when it won about 60% of votes. This time it is on course to win as much as 80%, trouncing not just the incumbent, army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) but also the dozens of smaller, ethnic parties. Many had doubted whether it could achieve the two-thirds of the contested seats it needed (since one-quarter of parliamentary seats are unelected, reserved for soldiers). It has done so with ease.

The USDP has not contested the results. “We lost,” admitted its boss, Htay Oo. Thein Sein, the president (and former general), congratulated Miss Suu Kyi, as did the army chief. Perhaps the army believes the protections it built into a constitution foisted on the country in 2008 are enough to preserve its clout.

For one thing, they mean Miss Suu Kyi will not succeed Mr Thein Sein: the charter bars from the presidency anyone with a foreign spouse or children (Miss Suu Kyi is the widower of a Briton and has two British sons). But she will choose the president, and, as she frankly 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 “humble” in victory; no big party followed the NLD’s passing the threshold for victory.

There has already been plenty of celebration, however. On election night, outside party headquarters in Yangon, 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 voters have convincingly shown their contempt for the army’s role in politics, the army remains powerful. Its faction in the parliament gives it a veto over constitutional amendments. 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, a Nobel peace-prize winner, 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 will 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 has treated as stateless, depriving them of the 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 and their cronies. The army is not out of politics yet, but it has been a week when Myanmar’s people declared, in Miss Suu Kyi’s phrase their “freedom from fear”, and hope escaped from its box.

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