Today’s elections are broadly expected to sweep Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament. Her campaign has dominated global headlines for the past few weeks and her iconic image has come to encapsulate the new face of Burma.
But her victory may not be as meaningful as many hope.
Only 45 seats are up for grabs in this election, amounting to less than seven percent of the national parliament. This means that even if Suu Kyi’s opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD) wins all the available seats, they cannot challenge the military’s dominance in parliament. The deeply undemocratic 2008 constitution still guarantees the military 25 percent of all seats in parliament. The 2015 general election, where real power is at stake, will be much more significant.
Although Suu Kyi has spoken publicly about reforming the constitution, it is difficult to see how this will happen. At least 75 percent of MPs would need to vote in favour of an amendment, after which it would need majority approval in a national referendum. The opposition leader will face an uphill battle in pushing through any kind of judicial or legislative reform.
She has made a tactical decision to operate within the system. As one analyst puts it “Suu Kyi and her colleagues will serve as voices of reform in Parliament”, perhaps hoping to capitalise on frictions within the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). She has maintained that it’s less about “winning a seat” and more about galvanising political awareness in Burma.
No doubt her campaign has stimulated dialogue on issues previously viewed as taboo; however, most of it has been exclusively focused on the NLD. “Most of the media only covers Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign. The media coverage should be fair”, National Democratic Front (NDF) leader U Khin Muang Swe said last week.
Smaller and less funded parties – including the five ethnic minority parties running – have already been penalised by unfair election regulations, which require a non-refundable registration fee of 500,000 kyat (about US$ 610) to be paid up front. As a result many of the parties, including the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, were only able to field the minimum three candidates required by law.
Widespread allegations of election fraud and interference have dogged the campaign since the start. Suu Kyi herself recently declared that the elections would not be free or fair. As voting gets under way, reports of missing names and interference with ballot boxes are rampant. But it seems likely that Suu Kyi will assume her role in parliament if she is elected all the same.
She already faces growing pushback from her own party ranks and external analysts who say her presence will help legitimise the military-backed government and its questionable reform agenda. This is particularly concerning as the validity of the elections come under greater scrutiny.
Her entry into parliament may also help distract from troubles further afield. Three elections in conflict-torn Kachin state have been postponed by the election commission citing “security concerns”- effectively disenfranchising some 200,000 citizens. Smaller and less publicised parties may well lose out in her shadow. An ethnic Burmese, dismissed by some as “elitist” and “inaccessible”, Suu Kyi’s persona is as much shrouded in mystery as it is with reverence.
It is unclear precisely what her policy agenda will be if elected. After 22 years in symbolic opposition, the transition to political strategist may not be simple. As Bertil Lintner explains in his 2011 book Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy “Suu Kyi’s strength is her ability to rally people around her and make them listen to her message. Her weakness is her quest for a ‘revolution of the spirit,’ which smacks of obscurantism and sheer metaphysics.”
President Thein Sein has quite cleverly tapped into the popular frenzy surrounding the former political prisoner. Despite professing that she does not want to “become a personality cult” in many ways that is precisely what she has become. Splashed across posters, banners and lauded with flags, a mere flash of her person can reduce supporters to hysteria and tears. On her ticket alone, Thein Sein may help placate the masses against continuing human rights concerns.
The Suu Kyi “cult” carries as much weight abroad as it does in Burma. If she recognises today’s results, including a positive one for herself, it will carry significant implications for the international community. Both the EU and the US have vowed to review its strict sanctions placed on the country if today’s elections are viewed as credible. Suu Kyi’s reaction will be critical.
But her entry into parliament is only a small step towards democracy. “April’s by-election in Burma will almost certainly bring opposition voices into parliament, and that will be a step forward,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch this week.
“[But] the real test is whether the new parliament can reform repressive laws and civilians can assert authority over the military.”