As November 8 election date draws nearer, all contesting parties scrambled to start the campaign season on how they will strategise to win votes so that their political programs could be realized.
According to the Union Election Commission (UEC) there are 94 political parties registered, of which about more than 30 are Bamar parties and some 60 belonging to the ethnic political parties (EPPs). And thus, the major three groupings can be identified as contenders, namely: the Bamar civilian parties; the military bloc parties; and the EPPs.
However, within the Bamar civilian parties the National League for Democracy (NLD) is the only formidable contender, while within the military bloc parties the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the top one which are positioned to form government in the aftermath of the November 2020 general elections. According to 2008 Constitution the said two political groups are privileged, one way or the other, due to their numerical constituency count both at the lower house Pyithu Hluttaw and upper house Ahmyotha Hluttaw than all the ethnic state constituencies combined.
The only thing that the EPPs could hope for is to become a Kingmaker, when either the NLD or USDP couldn’t achieve an absolute majority like in 2010 and 2015 general elections. In 2010, the USDP won the absolute majority and in 2015, the NLD did the same. In 2010 general elections the NLD didn’t participate as it refused to accept the military-drafted, 2008 Constitution.
Thus, the role of the EPPs are expected to become crucial in the upcoming elections, if the two major parties failed to achieve absolute majority, and provided that the two won’t opt for a sort of grand-coalition, like in Germany when the two contending parties, German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) did for the last two legislature periods. Such
a pact or deal situation happened as a number of middle size parties chipped away the two major parties’ votes, leaving the two with a combined votes thin margin of just a little more than 50%.
The fourth 21st Century Panglong Conference
Against this backdrop, the fourth 21st Century Panglong Conference (21CPC) was held from 19 to 21 August. While it was clear that the NLD is very much keen to portray the holding of conference, after two years of total stoppage due to the the Karen National Union (KNU) and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) boycott citing the military or Tatmadaw and government’s unfair practices, including the differences in the interpretation of the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), the military was quite determined not to give credit to the NLD.
As a result, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing lashed out at the government and as well the EAOs for the continuation of the civil war in his speech at the conference.
He rejected the notion that the military — which ruled the country from 1962 to 2015 and controls the ministries of defence, border affairs, and home affairs — was solely responsible for armed conflict. Furthermore he heaped the blame on the EAOs saying: “EAOs are opposing the Union and successive governments,” and that “if one studies the history objectively, it can be seen that the Tatmadaw is protecting the Union and successive governments.”
The NCA-signatory EAOs were also keen to have an agreement so that the NCA-based peace process will go on after the November general elections, which was sealed at the end of the conference as “Union Accord” Part III, vowing to establish federal union, constitutional court, political and resources-sharing, and security sector consultation and eventual restructuring according to the NCA guidelines.
On August 26, the Hluttaw unanimously approved the Union Accord Part III.
In the same vein, there is a linkage on what has happened in the fourth 21CPC with the EPPs, even though they were at the conference as part of the political cluster, which the country’s all political parties are involved, almost as unimportant players like just to make the poker round full house. In fact, they complained that they were there just to endorsed what the Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC), decided without their knowledge even though they are entitled to voice their concern. But since they didn’t want to rock the boat they haven’t protested. Although the next time, they won’t let it go easily like this again, said Sai Nyunt Lwin, who was the representative speaker for the political party cluster at the conference.
In this connection, it is essential to look at the formation of the EPPs involved and the political alliances that underpinned their political outlook.
UNA and NBF
When one considers about EPPs, it is appropriate to look at the two big umbrella organizations, the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) and Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF) even though they don’t embrace all some 60 or so ethnic parties that could be considered as belonging to the EPPs category.
To date, the UNA has fifteen members while the NBF claimed to have twenty-two members.
UNA stems from the 1990 era ethnic parties that won the election together with the NLD but were not allowed to hold parliament or form government.
In 2012 leaders of the ethnic parties that contested the 1990 election revived the United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD) that later became UNA. Its outgoing position is 8 state-based federalism, where the Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, Mon, Arakan, Chin, including the Bamar should form states under the system of a federal union. While all the ethnic states have already been formed, the Bamar State still needs to come into existence, as the Bamar majority and mixed territories are formed into 7 regions, which were previously called divisions in 1974 Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) Constitution.
Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), the Zomi Congress for Democracy, the Arakan League for Democracy and the Mon Democracy Party founded the UNA. The UNA which started out with eight members, increased to fifteen by 2019. The UNA program is to establish federalism, achieve ethnic rights through the process of political dialogue.
The NBF, on the other hand stems from 2010 election winning EPPs, which generally is perceived to be in allegiance with the USDP backed by the military. However, the main difference between itself and the UNA is that it accepts the 14 states/regions structure and does not support the 8 state-based federalism of the UNA. But surprisingly, according to its political statements the NBF goals are for the achievement of genuine federalism through constitutional amendment; and striving to be represented in the three pillars of the government—executive, legislative and judiciary, thereby realizing ethnic rights and equality.
Members of the UNA lately formed United Nationalities Democracy Party (UNDP) headed by David Hla Myint as chairman and Naw Ohn Hla as secretary to contest against the Bamar mainstream parties countrywide. UNDP will try its luck for the first time in the upcoming November election.
In the same vein, the NBF has already embarked on the same path since last election in 2015, with its members forming Federal Union Party (FUP) led by Saw Than Myint as chairman and Kyaw Zan Thar as secretary. The NBF was unable to capture any seat during the previous general election of 2015.
The aim of UNDP and FUP is to chip away votes from the Bamar mainstream parties of NLD and USDP.
Fusion of EPPs
On the sub-national-level many of the EPPs, which usually are either NBF or UNA members, are determined to merge or forge pre-electoral coalitions in order to withstand the NLD and USDP political onslaught. This motivation came about as the EPPs’ parliamentary seat counts reduce from 22 % during USDP general election victory in 2010 to just 11% during the NLD landslide victory in 2015.
NLD practically won almost all seats in ethnic states in 2015, except in Arakan State and Shan State.
According to the study “Party Mergers In Myanmar – A New Development,” written by Su Mon Thant and published by ISEAS Publishing, on 2 June 2020, and the UEC statistics, five new political parties came into existence due to the fusion as follows.
The Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP) come into existence with the fusion of the All Nationals’ Democracy Party (ANDP) of Kayah State and the Kayah Unity Democracy Party (KUDP), both founded in 2013. The registration was approved on 8 September 2017.
The fusion of three Karen parties, the Karen State Democracy and Development Party (KSDDP) founded in 2010; the Karen Democratic Party (KDP) founded in 2012; and the United Karen Nationalities Democratic Party (UKNDP) founded in 2015, resulted in formation of the Karen National Development Party (KNDP) with the registration approved on 22 February 2018.
The United and Democracy Party of Kachin State (UDPKS) founded in 2010; the Kachin State Democratic Party (KSDP) founded in 2013; and the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP) founded in 2014; merged to become the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) with the registration approved on 7 June 2019.
The Chin National Development Party (CNDP) founded in 2010; the Chin Progressive Party (CPP) founded in 2010; and the Chin League for Democracy (CLD) founded in 2014; merged into the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) and the registration was approved on 11 July 2019.
The All Mon Regions Democracy Party (AMRDP) founded in 2010, and the Mon National Party (MNP) founded in 2012 merged to become the Mon Unity Party (MUP), which was registered on 11 July 2019.
The basic main thrust for such mergers on the part of the EPPs is to avoid electoral defeat like they have to endure in 2015 general elections.
Another equally important factor is to promote federalism and find cooperation among like-minded players. In this respect, the EPPs will have to campaign to follow up the Union Accord III promises that the framework be followed and constitution amended.
The EPPs will be able to cash in on their own ethnic electorate votes because of the fusion and pre-election coalition arrangement between themselves.
Speculations are that NLD will get 40 percent of the vote and the EPPs 20 percent countrywide. If this comes true, the Kingmaker role of EPPs might become real whether the NLD likes it or not. And in case the USDP gets 30 percent together with its affiliated parties, not counting the 25 percent allotted Tatmadaw quota representatives in the parliament which also has to be taken as part of the military bloc, the EPPs may also go into coalition if the political stakes are properly settled.
But still a grand-coalition between the NLD and military bloc, which involves USDP, could also come into play. After all, the NLD is used to work with the military as a coalition-partner-like setting under the given 2008 Constitution, where the military is allotted to administer the home, defence and border affairs ministries.
The NBF and UNDP may not make a dent in NLD score card in Regions but the EPPs may increase their seats count in ethnic states, given the NLD inappropriate mishandling of the EPPs in many aspects during its legislature period.
The bottom line is the 2008 Constitution puts the EPPs numerically at disadvantage, especially on constituency counts of upper house (Ahmyotha Hluttaw) and also lower house (Pyithu Hluttaw). At Ahmyotha Hluttaw the 7 states and 7 regions each has 12 representatives and at Pyithu Hluttaw the 7 regions have a lot more constituency representatives than all the 7 ethnic states combined. Thus, as a result the EPPs won’t have a decisive say in the Union Parliament, which is the combination of the two houses.
Besides, in ethnic states-level or sub-state-level, the EPPs inability to choose its own chief minister and form their own state governments are instances of political frustration and grievances, hampered by the presidential power because he is entitled to make use his absolute authority to his liking.
The Arakan State and to a lesser extent the Shan State are good examples, when in the aftermath of NLD landslide victory in 2015 general elections, the most winning Arakan National Party wasn’t allowed to appoint its own chief minster and form government. In the same vein, the second winning Shan Nationalities League for Democracy in Shan State election (NLD came out third and USDP first) was ignored and instead the NLD appointed its own chief ministers in both states, together with its own state governments.
In sum, the merger of the EPPs would increase their chances to cash in more votes, and may even reduce system fragmentation, avoiding vote wastage and eventually lead to the formation of more stable ethnic-based political parties in the long run.
For now, the EPPs will probably campaign on the issues of the electorates’ daily lives betterment, including the call for ending of civil war. While campaigning for the former issue won’t be much of a problem, the latter will be a difficult nut to crack, as EPPs neither have power nor authority to resolve the problem, due to the constitutional constraint.