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By-election puts NLD’s early record to the test

A supporter of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi poses for a photograph in front of a board showing partial general election results at the NLD office in Mandalay, on 9 November 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

With tens of thousands of voters expected to go to the polls for today’s by-election, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) will get its clearest indication to date of how the Burmese people view the party’s first year in office.

In a country conspicuously devoid of reliable public polling, teashop banter and the editorial pages of the nation’s dailies have, to date, been as close as one might come to gauging the political zeitgeist in the NLD era. This weekend, however, the outcomes in 19 races for state and Union-level parliamentary seats across 22 townships will offer a small but sure-to-be-dissected snapshot of popular opinion on the ruling party’s first 12 months on the job.

Of the 13 races to fill seats in constituencies that voted in November 2015, 11 were won by the NLD. Today’s poll will go some way toward shedding light on whether voters are satisfied with the performance of the ruling party at what is the one-year mark of its government’s term.

“This is like a mid-term report card in school, and it’s not very good,” said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Rangoon-based Tampadipa Institute. “So it should be seen as a spur on that particular student, to apply himself of herself more, and that’s the best you can say for it.

“Of course I wouldn’t dismiss the [NLD] party’s chances outright. What’s happening now is that they’re falling back on the achievements, as they see it, in the past year but I would say it boils down to the argument of, ‘Are you going to choose, it’s a choice between green and red,” he added, referring to the colours that the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party and the ruling party are associated with, respectively.

“If you don’t vote for us, that means the USDP is going to win, and people don’t want that either, so maybe that could be a clincher in some places,” he told DVB, explaining the NLD’s possible appeal to voters this year.

The combatants

In terms of the number of races being contested, the USDP is the NLD’s biggest competition, with both parties competing in 18 of the 19 seats in play.

But 12 of the races are in constituencies outside the country’s Bamar heartland, offering ethnic political parties a shot at making competitive bids. Dozens of ethnic parties were among those vanquished in the NLD electoral wave of 2015. Even the strongest-performing among them, the Arakan National Party, was unable to win an outright majority in the Arakan State legislature.

But that was more than a year ago, and the case ethnic parties have been making over the last 60 days of campaigning is arguably stronger. The NLD has largely gone quiet on its often-recited pledge to seek constitutional amendments — a goal shared by ethnic minorities — and party leader Aung San Suu Kyi caused a minor furor last year when she suggested that ethnic armed groups consider what they can “give” rather than “take” in the course of the peace process. Critics saw it as indication of an inherent bias as a member of the majority Bamar.

As fighting has intensified in ethnic areas over the last year, observers are increasingly concluding that Suu Kyi’s ability to influence the Tatmadaw is limited.

“After a year with an NLD government, people in the ethnic areas, and, again, especially in Kachin State are disappointed. Many even feel betrayed,” said Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and author of several books on Burma. “The war is not over, it’s only getting worse, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is siding with the military, not with the long suffering people of Kachin State.”

Beyond the border regions, slowing economic growth, drooping foreign investment and a rise in prosecutions that, by most reasonable standards, would qualify as politically motivated — or merely petty and thin-skinned — have added to a sense that the government led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi has stumbled out of the gate.

Whether any of these early-term shortcomings will cost the NLD at the polls on Saturday remains an open question.

Lintner said it would be “very hard to predict what’s going to happen on April 1.” He noted, however, that the NLD still retained strong support in ethnic Bamar-majority areas, while “as a general trend, it is plausible to assume that people in non-Bamar areas are more likely to vote for their own, regional parties than for the NLD.”

The chair of the Yangon Division branch of the NLD, Myint Htay, acknowledged in November that “this time is different since we are the ruling party,” comparing the party’s 2017 prospects with the overwhelming majorities it won in three previous votes when the party was in the opposition.

He said additionally, he expected that candidates from all parties contesting this year would face greater scrutiny from the public, given that the scope of the by-election is just a sliver of the 2015 general election, in which more than 6000 candidates competed nationwide.

The 19 seats up for a vote are not enough to materially change the balance of power in any of the legislatures where seats will be filled. Still, with the NLD keeping tight reins on its lawmakers, MPs from other political parties have proved to be some of the most active and vocal presences in the legislatures over the first year of their sitting and Saturday’s vote could bring a feistier batch of politicians into the parliamentary arena.

A central question will be to what extent the NLD’s 2015 campaign mantra, “Time for change,” will determine voters’ choices and, as importantly, whether there will be enough of a consensus among the electorate that one year is too brief a window to undo decades of military mis-governance.

Khin Zaw Win argues otherwise.

“It’s not just one year. We have to start counting from 1988,” he told DVB, referring to the year of the NLD’s founding. “And that’s been nearly three decades, you know? … So they had three decades to prepare.”

A USDP resurgence?

The by-election will likewise prove a telling indicator of whether the USDP stands a chance at rebounding as a credible opposition party to challenge the NLD for control of government in 2020.

The military-backed party has continued to position itself as a defender of nationalism, a strategy that met with little success in the last general election but which could prove potent on 1 April, particularly given the volatile and evolving situation in Arakan State. While the USDP’s efforts to paint the NLD as overly sympathetic toward the nation’s Muslim minority failed to gain widespread traction with voters in 2015, the potential for the latest conflict — being framed as a campaign against Islamic insurgents — to raise passions, and fears, is clearly greater in the aftermath of the 9 October attacks and subsequent security crackdown.

As the British vote to leave the European Union and the US election of Donald Trump to the presidency have highlighted, nationalism is finding firmer footholds among electorates across the globe.

But Myo Aung Htwe, a board member at the Yangon School of Political Science, dismissed any chance of the beginnings of a USDP resurgence on Saturday.

“Most people are very tired of the USDP administration. They don’t want no more USDP. It’s very clear, they see it’s very corrupted. … They [the former ruling party] didn’t work [to provide] something good for them,” he said on Friday, adding that ethnic political parties were potentially the NLD’s most formidable by-election opponents.

Races to watch

The 19 constituencies in play offer a good cross-section of the national electorate. Some races, such as the Upper House seat for Rangoon constituency No. 6, would appear likely to be relatively “safe” seats for the NLD; in 2015 its candidate received 182,110 votes, with the runner-up netting just 25,111. Elsewhere contests will be much tighter.

In Arakan State’s Ann Township, a seat won by the USDP in 2015 will see arguably the country’s three strongest political parties compete. Though the army-backed USDP can count on a large bloc of votes from military families living in the constituency, the Arakan National Party and NLD are also in the running. In 2015, the USDP garnered 13,037 votes, followed closely by the ANP with 12,532 and the NLD with 11,081.

The Lower House race in Kawhmu Township, the Rangoon Division seat vacated by Suu Kyi, is 2017’s most crowded field, with nine candidates competing to succeed the state counsellor. She won the seat handily in 2015.

In Mon State, a Lower House race for Chaungzone Township has become much more interesting in recent weeks as controversy has mounted over a proposal from an NLD lawmaker to name a local bridge after General Aung San. That proposal has sparked protests and could mobilise voters to express their dissatisfaction at the ballot box, though any broad-based anti-NLD sentiment may see votes split among the USDP and two ethnic Mon parties fielding candidates, leaving the outcome uncertain.

“In Mon State, you don’t have a strong Mon party, so it’s a toss-up. If the USDP campaigns strongly, they could exploit this,” Khin Zaw Win said, referring to the recent bridge controversy and the NLD-appointed chief minister’s decision to resign in February.

Perhaps the greatest electoral unknown comes in Shan State, where nearly one-third of the by-election’s total seats were not voted on in 2015 due to concerns about lingering conflict in the townships of Mongshu and Kyethi. The six seats there — four in the state legislature and two for the Union Parliament’s Lower House — are all being contested by the NLD, USDP and the locally popular Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).

According to Sai Muang, editor-in-chief of Chiang Mai-based Shan Herald News Agency, these constituencies are primed to spoil any hope of a resounding by-election victory for the NLD.

“The SNLD will win in Kyethi and Mongshu,” he told DVB. “They are very strong there.”