The by-elections for 19 seats in Burma’s parliament were held on April 1, 2017, which was contested by 94 candidates [18 each from the Nationalities League for Democracy (NLD) and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), 51 from different ethnic political parties and seven individual candidates] from 24 political parties.
Accordingly, the NLD secured nine out of 19 vacant constituencies, followed by the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), with six seats (31.5 per cent), the Union Solidarity and Development Party with two seats (10 per cent) and the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the All Nationalities Democracy Party with one seat each.
Voter turnout was low in Rangoon but relatively high in ethnic areas. Across the country as a whole, 784,909 out of 2.13 million eligible voters (about 35 percent) cast their ballots. Reportedly, the turnout in ethnic states of Arakan, Chin, Karenni and Shan were said to be between 50 to 75 percent, while it was between 12 to 29 percent in Rangoon area, according to various media reports.
The ethnic parties good showing in Arakan, Karenni and Shan, especially in Shan State by the SNLD wining 6 seats out of 8 contested seats, might be an indication that the ethnic electorate has resorted to endorse their homegrown parties and abandoned their tactical voting behavior that ushered the NLD into the position of governance, in 2015.
Although the NLD still came out first nationwide with 9 seats won, making its win almost half the total of contested seats, it’s waning popularity with the ethnic electorate is alarmingly becoming the case in point, which probably is due to the inability of the NLD to fulfill its election campaign promises of “time to change”, particularly, its indifferent attitude to seriously amend the constitution and end the Burma Army offensive wars in ethnic states, that directly impacted on them.
While many see this as a negative trend that the NLD has to correct, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t seem to feel the heat.
Recently Suu Kyi dismissed the speculation that her failed approach in ethnic politics might have been the result of her party poor showing in ethnic states to the BBC by saying, that the NLD has never won in all the said contested constituencies and only won the Chaungzon, in Mon State, during the election in 2015 with a very slight margin. Thus, the loss of this constituency was the only real setback but the whole situation remained the same.
Whatever the case, the point to be made here is that the ethnic nationalities tactical voting to endorse the NLD during the 2015 nationwide election is now changed to self-reliance and empowering the ethnic political parties, as SNLD and ANP have shown in this by-election.
The memory is still fresh for the ethnic nationalities with regard to lack of cooperation and accommodation where the NLD is concerned.
They are: taking in ethnic individuals into its administration, in the name of national reconciliation, instead of forging coalition with ethnic political parties; refusal to accommodate ethnic political parties that should have formed state coalition government with the NLD and endorsing their people to the chief minister positions, such as ANP that won the most vote in Arakan State and the SNLD, which came out as the second winning party ahead of the NLD in Shan State; blaming the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) for the war in the north; and taking sides by honoring Burma Army soldiers with bravery credentials that had fought running battles with the EAOs and so on.
But even then, the SNLD recently reach out to the NLD to work together for the benefit of the country, shortly after winning it’s 6 parliamentary seats.
With the changing political reality on the ground, it is natural that new strategies would also have to be thought out on how to navigate the political waters for all stakeholders.
For the SNLD leadership it seems to prefer the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP) days – when the Military refused to hand over political power even the NLD and SNLD had won the 1990 nationwide election – kind of cooperation or coalition between parties. United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), an alliance of ethnic political parties, might also go for the same line of approach.
The 2020 nationwide election, another four years away, would also be played out quite differently, as the 88 generation leaders are gearing to launch a political party that could split the Bamar population votes into at least two within the democratic camp, coupled with the withdrawal of the ethnic nationalities tactical voting in ethnic states, that had backed the NLD to win the 2015 election.
Given such an alteration in political landscape configuration, which until NLD came to power last year was only seen as a struggle between the military and ethnic-democratic camp, the NLD would need to adjust its strategy if it likes to be still in position of governance.
In other words, it needs to be an able, willing coalition party and choose like-minded partner or partners carefully if it would like to carry on its unfinished task of state-building and national reconciliation. Because it is highly likely, the NLD wouldn’t be able to achieve an absolute majority easily without the ethnic tactical vote and endorsement, like in 2015.
It is high time that the NLD rethink its strategy on the ethnic nationalities as a whole to be in tune with its election campaign promises and the changing political climate.