The Khmer Times, 11 November 2015
The countries in the Mekong region have struggled to build democratic institutions in their own ways with different results. Myanmar is emerging to be a source of inspiration for democracy in the region.
The landmark election last Sunday signified a critical turning point in Myanmar’s politics, implying a power transition from the military to civilian leaders.
More than 6,000 candidates from over 90 political parties ran for the first credible election in more than two decades, which was relatively free and fair. Eighty percent of 30 million registered voters turned out to vote, reflecting high expectations for change.
Initial results showed that the NLD had secured a majority of the seats in both houses, allowing it to establish a new government by itself. The NLD contested 168 seats out of 224 seats in the upper house of the national parliament, and 325 seats of the 440 seats in the lower house. Twenty-five percent of the seats are reserved for the unelected military representatives.
The presidency will be announced early next year. However, Ms. Suu Kyi, the head of NLD and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is barred from the presidency as the constitution disqualifies anyone whose close relatives are foreigners – her two children hold British citizenship.
The NLD may not win the number the seats required to amend the constitution (it needs 75 percent of all seats to do so) to allow Ms. Suu Kyi to become the next president. A power competition between the NLD and the military will remain and there is uncertainty in the establishment of a stable post-election government.
The best scenario would be for the NLD and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to work together in a coalition government or a kind of working partnership to design and implement a national development agenda.
Democratic consolidation and institutional building is a gradual process. Myanmar needs time and collective efforts in mobilizing domestic political support from different actors, particularly the military. Collective leadership, multi-stakeholder consultation and partnership, and public engagement are critical in nation building and democratic consolidation.
Myanmar’s Image and Role
The election brings hope and positive changes to the country and the region. Myanmar’s image and role on the international stage will be strengthened if there is a smooth power transition in the post-election period.
Since the political reforms and opening up of Myanmar in 2010, Myanmar has emerged to become a catalyst of ASEAN community building.
Cambodian politicians and civil society groups have been paying close attention to the ongoing political development in Myanmar. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has capitalized on Myanmar’s election to ratchet up its “change” campaign. Some have quickly come to the conclusion that if the NLD could win and gain power in Myanmar, so would the CNRP in Cambodia.
However, Cambodia and Myanmar are very different in terms of historical and economic development. First, the NLD had a landslide victory in the 1990 general election, gaining about 80 percent of the seats. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to rule. The NLD has maintained its popular support since then, despite suppression from the junta.
Overall, the leadership and organizational structure of the NLD is stronger than the CNRP from central to local levels.
Second, the NLD has worked quite closely with the USDP over the past three years. Through such communication, personal relationship and trust between the leaders from the two parties have been built, particularly between Ms. Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann, who was purged from his USDP leadership in August.
In comparison, since the CNRP was only formed in 2012 after a merger between the Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party, the question of leadership still lingers. Unlike the NLD, the opposition leaders do not enjoy the same level of trust with the ruling elites, making any future cooperation even more difficult.
Third, under the military leadership, Myanmar had failed to develop and reduce poverty in the country. Its GDP growth rate is about 5 percent over the last two decades. The poverty rate is about 26 percent. Its difficult political and economic history, weak public institutions, and weak social trust pose great challenges for Myanmar. Such economic development failure greatly challenges the legitimacy the military regime. Economic failure is the main reason explaining the loss of support for the USDP in the election.
The Cambodian economy on the other hand has performed quite well over the last two decades with an annual GDP growth rate of slightly over 7 percent, lifting millions of people out of extreme poverty. The current poverty rate is about 19 percent. According to the United Nations, Cambodia has also achieved all of its Millennium Development Goals targets, most notably in maternal health, infant mortality and literacy. Thus, what the Cambodian People’s Party needs to do now is to speed up reforms and deliver concrete results in order to win the 2018 election.