Myanmar’s Ruling Party Signals Defeat as Suu Kyi Calls for Calm

Updated on
  • Suu Kyi's party dominating slow-to-arrive early returns
  • Ruling party co-chair says USDP lost more seats than it won

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader and chairperson of the National League for Democracy.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party said it expected to win 80 percent of the seats contested in the nation’s historic election, as limited official results from the party’s strongholds showed it was dominating early returns.

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The National League for Democracy was the victor in 48 of 53 seats in the national parliament for which results were available, the election commission announced Tuesday, though there are hundreds more contests left to count from Sunday’s vote. Even the co-chair of the military-backed ruling party said his party likely lost more seats than it won, though he stressed that results he was looking at were not yet official.

“We expect we will win 80 percent,” Win Myint, a member of the NLD’s executive committee, said Tuesday. "The voters, the people, really want change and want to build a democratic country."

The election commission has said counting the votes could take a week or longer. For NLD supporters who remember the last time the party contested a nationwide election -- a landslide 1990 victory that was ignored by the ruling junta -- spirits were high as they sang and danced in the rain for a second night Monday and cheered each result that trickled in.

"I always felt excitement for the NLD for 25 years, but now I feel no fear," said Phyo Pye Aung, a 46-year-old engineer from Yangon, comparing Myanmar today with conditions under the former military regime.

In her only speech since the vote, Suu Kyi urged caution, while noting that her supporters likely could guess who had won the election.

"Stay peaceful and calm," Suu Kyi told supporters gathered Monday outside her NLD party’s Yangon headquarters. "The winner must be humble and avoid actions that can offend others. Real victory must be for the country, not for a group or individuals."

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The voting, monitored by thousands of international observers who traveled to Myanmar, appeared to have gone smoothly Sunday, with no reports of violence or visible fraud.

NLD Strongholds

The early results are coming from the NLD’s strongholds in the nation’s cities and central heartland. It will need a strong majority in the legislature to be able to select the next president given that the military is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in parliament and its political arm, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, will hold additional seats.

There are signs that the USDP has lost ground, with several key party figures acknowledging they had suffered defeat. Neither President Thein Sein or the nation’s powerful army chief have commented on the election.

Even if an NLD landslide is confirmed, Suu Kyi’s party faces obstacles to governing. Apart from automatically gaining 25 percent of seats in the legislature, the military is also guaranteed control of key ministries such as defense. Suu Kyi herself is constitutionally barred from becoming president because her children are foreign nationals. She has repeatedly said she plans to find a way to lead the government and that constitution says nothing about someone being “above the president.”

Longtime Foils

Suu Kyi, 70, and her party are the longtime foils to the generals who ruled Myanmar from a coup in 1962 until 2011, when they handed power to their political arm after a vote in 2010 that was tainted by allegations of fraud and boycotted by the opposition. Sunday’s vote was the most widely contested since the stolen 1990 poll, which plunged Myanmar into another generation of repression and isolation. Suu Kyi was under house arrest during the 1990 election and had to accept the Nobel Peace Prize the following year in absentia from her lakeside villa in Yangon.

While more than 90 parties were competing to represent the Southeast Asian nation’s 52 million people in parliament, the two largest are the NLD and USDP. If neither can control the legislature, they will need to woo smaller parties in order to select the next president. Myanmar’s president will be chosen early next year in a parliamentary vote in which the upper house, lower house and military appointees each put forward a candidate, with the president selected by a majority of votes from both houses.

Ethnic Parties

The most obvious coalition partners would be regional parties that cater to ethnic minorities in border areas. It’s unclear how well the NLD did in those regions.

Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said there is anecdotal evidence from election observers that the NLD is picking up seats in ethnic areas.

National League for Democracy party supporters cheer as they gather outside the party headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg
National League for Democracy party supporters cheer as they gather outside the party headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

“The fact that the NLD is doing so well in ethnic states like that suggests they are on track to win by a landslide,” he said.

Since becoming president, Thein Sein, a member of the former junta, and his government have opened industries such as energy exploration, banking and telecommunications to foreign participation in a bid to bring Myanmar out of economic isolation. Foreign direct investment, led by spending on infrastructure and low-cost manufacturing, surged to $8.1 billion in the fiscal year ended in March, more than 20 times the 2010 level. That jump helped annual economic growth average more than 7 percent since that year. The kyat weakened Monday to a three-week low of 1,288 per dollar after the election.

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Suu Kyi has signaled that she would continue the government’s investor-friendly policy and has pledged to improve rule-of-law in the country to better foster investment.

Smooth Transition?

“We do think that the NLD’s victory will provide clarity to foreign investors as long as it holds and the military/USDP continue to respect the results,” said Andrew Wood, head of Asia Country Risk at BMI Research.

Thein Sein said before the vote that the military and the government would accept the outcome should the ruling party lose and work with the opposition to ensure a stable transition. No matter who wins the poll the military will still retain a significant role in politics because in addition to its allotment of seats in parliament it is also guaranteed control of key ministries under a constitution written by the departing junta.