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Suu Kyi No Shoo-in at Myanmar’s 2020 polls
By BERTIL LINTNER is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant > DECEMBER 29, 2019
A new huge billboard recently erected at a major intersection in Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon portrays the nation’s nominal leader with a message of support: “We stand with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Such billboards are not unique in Myanmar and appeared well before Suu Kyi headed to The Hague’s International Court of Justice in December to defend her nation against charges of genocide, a stand that was widely panned by foreign media but cheered by nationalist groups at home.
But the new signboard’s existence and message are noteworthy all the same. “Five years ago, it would not have been necessary,” says a local community worker who requested anonymity. “Then everybody in Yangon supported her and no-one had to be reminded of that.”
Although difficult to predict in any nation, new political undercurrents suggest Myanmar’s November 2020 general election could be the first genuinely competitive democratic contest held since 1960, the last before the military seized power in a 1962 coup.
When Myanmar went to the polls in 1990 and 2015, the elections were de facto referendums on the old military-dominated system rather than democratic contests among diverse political parties and electoral choices. On both occasions, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) represented change and hope for a better future.
A repeat of the fraudulent 2010 election – a one-sided contest portrayed by the then-ruling junta as a democratic restoration which delivered the pre-ordained result of a military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) victory – would be impossible today after nearly four years of NLD-led elected governance.
The NLD won a landslide at the 2015 election, securing 255 of the 330 seats in the 440-member lower house. (One hundred and ten seats in the lower house are reserved by law for military-appointed delegates.)
In the upper house, the NLD won 135 of 168 contested seats, with 56 of the total 224 going to the military. Similar pro-NLD results were seen in 14 regional and state assemblies with the sole exception of Rakhine state, where the local Arakan National Party won the most contested seats.
But popular support for the NLD has apparently waned in ethnic areas since its 2015 landslide win, witnessed in by-elections held in November 2018 where the party won only six of 13 contested seats in state, regional and national parliaments.
The USDP failed to win over disenfranchised voters, but disappointment with the NLD’s policies has resulted in regional parties making recent significant gains that could hinder the NLD’s ability to form a government after the 2020 polls.
In Yangon, an NLD bastion rooted partly in Suu Kyi’s popularity and birth as a democratic icon during the military’s lethal 1988 crackdown, criticism of her party is now commonplace, especially of the regional government it leads.
While the NLD remains immensely popular in rural areas in central Myanmar, where Suu Kyi still enjoys an almost goddess-like status, many in urban and ethnic areas feel that the party has failed to deliver on its promises of democratic reform and economic development. How much damage the NLD has done to its past reputation as a standard bearer of democracy and reform is not yet clear. ##