Myanmar’s Changing Political Party Landscape

This piece was co-authored by Hunter Marston and Jack Myint.

Washington may never have dreamed it would see the day come that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would one day rule the roost as Myanmar’s de facto leader. Deeming the country’s democratization on stable footing, President Obama decided the time was right, during Suu Kyi’s September 2016 visit, for the United States to lift its decades-long economic sanctions. Granted, Suu Kyi, and the government formed by her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), face many political challenges: navigating their role as super-majority in both houses of the Union Parliament (Pyihtaungsu Hluttaw); working with opposition parties to enact legislation critical to national reconciliation; and continuing the country’s positive economic trajectory. Looking ahead to the 2020 general elections, major political forces are vying for a dominant position in the country’s inchoate politics.

The National League for Democracy (NLD)

So long as Aung San Suu Kyi stays involved in Myanmar politics, the NLD will remain, more or less, the dominant political party. Her domestic star power and international respect and recognition, carries more weight and appeal than any campaign promise that other parties, or even the NLD itself, can present. This is not to say that the NLD is without its own problems. One would be mistaken to assume that after five years in power, it will retain the 76% popular vote that it achieved in Myanmar’s historic November 2015 elections.

The NLD’s highly centralized Central Executive Committee (CEC) that practices a top-down approach, has led to multiple divisions within party ranks, most notably between headquarters and regional offices. Moreover, public opinion towards the party could shift now that it has actually been given the chance to govern. Their new role as chief executive differs dramatically from the many years in the activist realm, and then as the opposition (2012-2015). No doubt there will be praise for the NLD’s achievements in office, but there will also be more vocal criticism, perhaps to a lesser extent, but more so than what we saw amidst the pre-2015 election frenzy. This will make way for other parties and forces to chip away at, if not entirely eradicate, an NLD majority in Parliament.

Ethnic Parties

Ongoing fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Shan, Kachin, Ta’an, and other ethnic armed groups, mean that there will be a stronger mandate in these constituencies for their states’ and divisions’ local party members to represent them in Nay Pyi Taw, in addition to the regional Parliaments. The anti-Burman sentiment has always been strong among ethnic groups, with the November 2015 election a rare exception.

This exception is rooted in a recognition that, while ethnic citizens did not necessarily see NLD candidates (most of whom are Burman) as their first choice, many were more concerned with the need to create a political force that could defeat the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). They saw this as the only way to effectively carry out meaningful change and the NLD as their only option with the potential to carry out a task of such magnitude.

There are two ways this scenario may pan out with respect to 2020—both leading to a similar outcome. If there is no real change, the standard of which will deviate from one ethnic bloc to another, voters will be disappointed at the NLD and naturally be inclined to go with a local party candidate. If there is in fact noticeable change and a lesser military presence, be it in day-to-day governance or through a significant reduction in guerilla warfare, ethnic voters’ priority would likely shift from security issues toward self-interest, which has not been a priority for the NLD. As such, they would be more likely to vote in local party candidates of the same ethnic origin and, in many cases, religion. Either way, all signs indicate that we will see more ethnic representatives and coalitions emerge in Myanmar’s Union Parliament after 2020.

Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)

The USDP’s significant defeat during the last election cycle has led the party to undertake some internal restructuring, which includes many of its domineering political figures, such as Thein Sein, Htay Oo, and Khin Yi taking a backseat in day-to-day operations. These individuals’ involvement on a “steering committee” hint that this may very well be more an attempt to bring in fresh faces, rather than actual fresh ideas. Regardless, the USDP will always be seen as the military’s party among the general populace. Aiming for a victory in 2020, it would be advisable for USDP to own that image, rather than abandon it.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s engagement and collaboration with Aung San Suu Kyi have begun to tip the public opinion scale in the military’s favor. His efforts to reach out to local communities and media savvy have also increased the military’s appeal, and thus the USDP’s by association. This is by no means to say that the anti-military sentiment in Myanmar has diminished overnight, particularly in ethnic regions. But for the more than half of Myanmar’s population that is Burman, and among a more conservative crowd that prefers stability over democracy and vigor over charisma, the military under Min Aung Hlaing will hold their support. Min Aung Hlaing has already passed the retirement age of 60 when he decided to stay on as Commander-in-Chief back in 2015. If he does retire from the military in 2020, a leadership role within the USDP is almost inevitable. The USDP could then conceivably win over the aforementioned voter base, even if a good portion of it voted for the NLD in 2015.

Thura Shwe Mann and Co.

Thura Shwe Mann’s role in Myanmar politics should not be underestimated. His legal affairs and special cases assessment commission plays a large behind-the-scenes role in the Union Parliament. The commission primarily entails researching and recommending key amendments and additions to the 2008 Constitution. It accords Shwe Mann enormous influence and serves as an unofficial “rest stop” for his closest allies (former military and USDP men) as they await political appointments.

Shwe Mann was poised to assume a leadership role in Myanmar’s new administration, given his proximity to Aung San Suu Kyi, but Nay Pyi Taw insiders say there was push-back from some key members of the NLD’s central executive committee. It is no secret Shwe Mann has always held ambitions for high office, evident since his days as Speaker of the Lower House when he openly went against his own party’s incumbent, Thein Sein, in a bid for the presidency. This divisive trend played a key role in his eventual fall from grace, when he was forcefully removed from the USDP.

Shwe Mann’s current position leaves him unable to join the higher ranks of either major party, the NLD or USDP. But he still holds substantial political capital among his powerful allies, who were also removed from the USDP. He also retains influence over certain factions of the military from his time as Lieutenant General. Add to this financial backing from Yangon business elites, personal charisma, and impressive media savvy. Given his position, he could even start a new political party.

88 Generation Student Leaders

It may seem as though leading 88 generation figures Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, and Aung Thu, have somewhat retired from the political scene since 2015. But it would be premature to rule out their ability to mount a political comeback in the form of a well-organized 88 Generation Students’ coalition, with a more youthful crowd at its core. In the last election cycle, many of the notable 88 generation leaders who sought elected office, were expecting to run under the NLD flag. However, they were caught off-guard by the NLD’s decision to deny their candidacy. Lacking a “Plan B”, some went ahead to run as independent candidates and lost as a result of the party-centric political system. Now that they have had time to recuperate and better connect with voters through their ongoing civil society work, the 88 generation could coalesce as a credible political party. After all, many of them have an established support base that resembles, to a lesser extent, that of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Predicting 2020

Among the factions struggling to unify influential backers and mobilize voting blocs, Myanmar showcases the emergence of a robust parliamentary party landscape. Despite healthy turnover, exhibited by President Thein Sein making way for the peaceful transfer of power to the NLD in 2016, the country remains beset by tense civil-military relations, ongoing ethnic and racial instability, and constitutional constraints on democratic progress. Whether or not the NLD remains on top of the electoral pyramid, political party competition within legal bounds cements important democratic precedents and further strengthens Myanmar’s political institutions. If one thing is clear from the last decade of political change, what happens ahead of the 2020 general election remains anyone’s guess.

Hunter Marston is an independent Myanmar analyst in Washington, DC. He has previously worked in the US Embassy in Yangon and Vahu Development Institute.

Jack Myint is an Associate for Mainland Southeast Asia at the US-ASEAN Business Council headquarters in Washington, DC. He has previously worked at Inle Advisory Group and the Pyithu Hluttaw (Myanmar’s Lower House of Parliament).