Burma’s by-election: Does it matter?

It does, but…

Questions:

Does the upcoming election matter? And how much?

Answers:

Maung ZarniVisiting Fellow, Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science

Yes and No.

In terms of who controls the real levers of power absolutely nothing will change. The ruling generals and ex-generals have the overwhelming majority of seats – more than 75% of a total of 660 seats in all chambers. Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition NLD is contesting for the 40-plus seats, which is less than 8% of the parliamentary seats in the entire parliamentary system.

What may be significant is that the electorate is being excited about having a formal political process where there can openly debate the regime’s failed policies, talk about the dismal state of the affairs, openly express their support for Aung San Suu Kyi and what she and dissident colleagues stand for, and shed their fear of the regime. In this latter sense, the bi-elections may be bringing about a political cultural shift among the populace.

In short, in terms of power politics and regime’s domestic policies there is no difference, elections or no elections. It’s the same old generals and ex-generals with the same old attitude and the same old self-, institutional and commercial interests. But social psychologically, the public has broken free itself of the paranoia which the dictatorship of 50 years had successfully instilled in the public psyche.

Marco Bünte, Research Fellow, Institute of Asian Studies, German Institute of Global and Area Studies

Do the elections matter?

Yes they do. For the first time after 1990 the most important voices of the country are to take part in the political process, which in the end may lead to national reconciliation.

How far?

The opposition NLD might be formally included in Parliament, the forces fighting for a Democratic change might be strengthened. However, this is also just a small step to reconciliation as the opposition does not have enough power to change the Constitution and change the overall dominance of the military. And another important aspect: the elections might be the important step to end the isolation from Western countries.

Don EmmersonDirector, Southeast Asia Forum, Stanford University

The imminent elections in Burma will not be fully free and fair. They will not fundamentally alter the supremacy of the military-backed regime. They are by-elections, after all. Of the 400 seats in the lower house, only 40 are up for election. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy wins all 40 seats, those who occupy the remaining 360 will basically favor the regime.

The elections are significant instead because, if Suu Kyi wins, she will no longer be a voice of conscience outside the system. She will become a morally powerful but politically marginal participant inside it.

The question will then become: Who is co-opting whom? Will her joining the system merely boost the legitimacy of the regime? Or will she succeed in using her new platform to champion further reform? Or will we see a third outcome somewhere in between?

Sean TurnellAssociate Professor, Department of Economics, Macquarie University

The election matters greatly. No real change to the underlying political structure, but the symbolism is very significant. We really will see how far Burma’s new government will tolerate political pluralism – but the biggest impact may be with respect to the policies of other countries. Should the election process be judged as reasonably free and fair then it is likely a number of key countries will begin the process of lifting sanctions, including the US. Not all sanctions, but enough to encourage the reform process, and hopefully buttress the reformers.

Jason Abbott, Director, Center for Asian Democracy, Associate Professor, Political Science, University of Louisvill

Today’s elections will have relatively little practical effect. The Burmese parliament has relatively little power while the 45 seats that were contested in today’s by-elections constitute only about ten percent of the parliament’s total size.  So the significance of today’s elections is really symbolic internally and externally.

This represents the first time since 1990 that both Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have taken part in elections in the country. Although her party won a landslide in those elections the military declared them null and void and so as a consequence Suu Kyi’s widely anticipated victory in today’s poll will see her hold political office for the very first time. In addition she is likely to also assume the mantle of the official leader of the opposition in parliament from where she is expected to lead a push to revise the current constitution to reduce the role of the military in political life.

Externally the elections represent a benchmark against which the international community will measure the progress of the reform process begun under Prime Minister Thein Sein in November 2010.  Although there have been reports of some electoral irregularities if the international community finds that the elections have been mostly free and fair it is also widely anticipated that both the European Union and the United States are likely to remove some of the various economic and financial sanctions in place both to reward the reformers as well as to encourage further reform. Thus overall today’s elections do represent a crucial watershed in the process of political reform and rehabilitation.

Jack FongAssistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Psychology and Sociology, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

To answer your question: it certainly does. Burma is slowly opening up, but they want to do it in a way that isn’t too reactive. Thus, ASSK’s victory as being elected is but a small, but important step in the process. As the results of this election unfolds, the results show less tampering with votes, and thus, the outcome of ASSK is credible. At this point, many old-time soldiers are themselves tired of the stagnation their country has been under for many decades. However, and this may surprise you, the real important figure here is the quiet, humble, Thein Sein, currently the president of Burma and who has been so since 2011. He is unlike Than Shwe and other hardliners, and he has been pivotal in making the way for ASSK to rise. In fact, she recently acknowledged that her first meeting with him inspired her enough to return to run for office. That’s a lot of credit being given to a once-former military figure.

Additionally, his life is a humble one. His entire family shuns the spotlight and none of his children nor his wife lead controversial lives. He is a man of few words, a quiet fellow with a sharp mind for foresight. This is unlike Than Shwe’s family, who often televise the children having lavish wedding parties and so forth. As such, the election is important, but the person behind the scenes that has allowed all this to happen was not ASSK, but Thein Sein. He is essentially the Gorbachev of the country right now. So how the election outcome is handled by him and a rising ASSK is something to keep an eye on. In my personal opinion, Thein Sein is “ready” for Burma to be led by ASSK, but he’s going to give power to her and the NLD in ways that do not make him lose face.

That said, the recent victory by ASSK and her NLD is very real and will change the future of the country. If I am to bet money on this, ASSK will be the next president of Burma if she isn’t assassinated. This Friday, the NLD will be meeting with the Karen National Union–fulfilling a promise that Aung San Suu Kyi made to her partners, ethnic minorities in Burma that at one point, sheltered her after the 1988 crackdown. Things are very exciting right now.

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