Myanmar's election on Sunday: Why It Matters

March 30, 2012 - 5:58 AM
Myanmar Elections

A Myanmar villager, with his face smeared with herbal paste, poses for a photograph in the village of Wah Thin Kha from where pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is standing for by-elections in Myanmar, Thursday, March 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar's special election Sunday is for a small portion of parliament seats, but has taken on immense symbolic importance because it will likely see pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi win her first term in office.

The elections represent a key step for national reconciliation after more than two decades of bitter struggle which set the ruling military against a pro-democracy movement led by Suu Kyi and which turned Myanmar into a shunned, pariah state with stunted development.

Though the seats up for grabs are relatively few, the stakes are high for both the military-backed government, which wants to emerge from international isolation, and for Suu Kyi's camp, which wants real democracy. The vote also sets the stage for an even more important election in 2015.

Here's a look at Sunday's polling, the players and what's at stake:

THE ELECTION:

Candidates are vying for 45 seats in the 664-seat parliament that have been vacated since 2010 general elections, which were boycotted by Suu Kyi's party. The government has invited a limited number of international observers to observe the latest polling, hoping to boost its democratic credentials. Suu Kyi, running in an impoverished district south of Yangon, has alleged widespread irregularities in the run-up, but has vowed to go forward with her candidacy.

THE MILITARY:

The country's former military rulers — known for violently suppressing any uprisings — nullified a 1990 election victory by Suu Kyi and kept her under house arrest for much of the following decades. They engineered the 2010 elections to usher in a nominally civilian governement while ensuring that the military retained power, for example, by reserving at least a quarter of parliament seats for the military. Foreign observers were barred from that vote; a military-backed party won.

Now firmly entrenched, the country's rulers have a strong interest in promoting a more democratic stance, to placate international critics. The government hopes to earn a lifting of economic and political sanctions by the U.S. and other Western nations, so that Myanmar can enjoy the benefits of the global economy.

It can afford to allow Suu Kyi's followers to win seats in the parliament, because those up for grabs amount to less than 7 percent of the legislature, and wants Sunday's vote to appear to go as smoothly as possible.

The government of President Thein Sein has launched a series of reforms — the freeing of political prisoners, the opening of a dialogue with Suu Kyi. Washington has promised to upgrade diplomatic relations, but wants to see free and fair elections before it grants further rewards.

SUU KYI:

Suu Kyi and her political party came out of the 2010 election with poor prospects because of its boycott. Two decades of struggle against fierce repression had given the party the moral high ground but drained its energy.

Then, Suu Kyi was finally freed from house arrest, rejuvenating her pro-democracy movement while she herself — in her mid-60s — has shown signs of fatigue in campaign appearances that have drawn large, enthusiastic crowds.

Suu Kyi was supposedly loathed by the former military leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who stepped down after the 2010 elections. But she says she trusts Thein Sein and his promise of a kinder, gentler Myanmar.

She has acknowledged that her party will have no substantial power even it if wins all 45 seats that it is contesting, but hopes to give voice to the "aspirations" of the people.

Thein Sein's government needs Suu Kyi's participation because of her prestige in the international community as standard-bearer for Myanmar's democracy movement whose courage won her a Nobel Peace prize. She commands considerable influence on policymakers, especially in the United States.

To woo Washington, Thein Sein must curry favor with Suu Kyi.

THE FUTURE:

Both sides are playing for future benefits, but the path seems clearer for the military: Provide enough democracy to keep Suu Kyi in line and satisfy Western nations so that they drop their sanctions, and use the anticipated inflows of investment to jump-start the economy.

Critics fear that Suu Kyi could become marginalized or co-opted in parliament. But if her party plays by the government's rules, it could provide the party's long-suffering organizers the kind of breathing space they never before enjoyed.

Suu Kyi has said repeatedly that the party will work outside the legislature as well as inside. Many of the country's best-known pro-democracy activists, released from prison under Thein Sein's amnesties and unbowed by their incarceration, have vowed their support for Suu Kyi.

If the party can rebuild itself, it can mount a campaign for a general election in 2015 that could pose a real challenge to military-backed rule. Whether the military allows a victory by Suu Kyi and her supporters in that vote — or squashes the result, as it did in 1990 — will be the true test of its commitment to democracy.