The people of the south-east Asian country called either Myanmar or Burma (a controversy I propose to leave aside) go to the polls tomorrow to elect, they hope, a new democratic government. Whether that’s actually what will happen remains radically uncertain.
There have been two nationwide elections in Myanmar since the popular uprising and military takeover of 1988. The first, in 1990, was regarded as a piece of window-dressing by the new military government, but surprisingly turned out to be quite fair, and as a result the opposition National League for Democracy won a large majority. The government ignored the results and the parliament was never allowed to meet.
It was 20 years until the next election, in 2010, after the military had introduced a new constitution. With no expectation of fairness and most of its leaders in exile or under arrest, the NLD boycotted the polls; the vehicle of the military, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won 259 of the 330 elected seats. A further 110 seats were (and are) directly reserved for military representatives.
Then things started to change. The new president, Thein Sein, himself a former general, embarked on a program of reform, releasing political prisoners, relaxing many controls and opening the country to the outside world. In early 2012, when a series of by-elections was held, the NLD was induced to participate: it contested 37 of the 40 seats on offer, and won them all.* Its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, entered parliament as leader of the opposition.
You can read here the account I gave at that time, three and a half years ago. It’s pretty optimistic in tone, and not all of its hopes have since been fulfilled, but I think the fundamentals remain unchanged – including the following:
We know that authoritarian political systems can sometimes reform gradually from within. Mikhail Gorbachev’s dismantling of the apparatus of Soviet dictatorship is probably the most obvious example. But it’s a rare event and, as that case shows, the risks are considerable. More often, dictators open the window just slightly to try to appease critics or attract foreign aid, then either succeed in shutting it again or are overthrown in the attempt.
But although there is still some scepticism, change in Burma is looking more and more like the genuine article. With the momentum that has built up, re-imposing control would require a massive use of force, and the longer things continue the more difficult it would be. The country may have already reached the point where, even from the generals’ point of view, continued democratisation carries fewer risks than the alternatives.
Voting is first-past-the-post in single-member constituencies. With the 25% reserved for the military, the NLD needs to win two-thirds of the seats on offer for a majority. Unless there’s been some recent and radical change in the climate of opinion – for which we have no evidence – it should do so comfortably. While it cannot then make Suu Kyi president (she is barred by a constitutional technicality devised for that purpose), there is nothing to stop it appointing a president who will take orders from her.
Nothing, that is, legally. The question is whether the military will stand idly by and allow their rivals to take power, or whether they will resort to force to retain control. Or whether the NLD, foreseeing the risk, will compromise and refrain from pushing its advantage to the full.
Suu Kyi so far has sounded defiant but not intransigent. A month ago she said “I do believe there are many members of the army who want what is best for the country, and if we can agree with one another what would be best for the country, we can come to some arrangement.”
But much of the commentary on the election has assumed that the military will never allow her to reach the point of dictating terms. At the start of the campaign, Myanmar expert Min Yin in the New York Times said that “The army, for its part, is once again manipulating Myanmar’s political scene to ensure that it remains in charge, election or not,” while just last week the Economist said that “No matter how many millions of Burmese vote against the Union Solidarity and Development Party … the army will remain the real power in Myanmar.”
It’s certainly true that the NLD will not be able to deprive the army of all political power at a stroke, and it would be foolish in the extreme to try. And with all that she has survived in the last 30 years, Suu Kyi is definitely no fool.
But there may nonetheless be a major shift of power on the way. The military won’t like it, but they may be brought to accept it as the best option available in the circumstances.