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President's post unlikely for Suu Kyi

Publication Date : 25-08-2014


Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has worked hard to clear the way for its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to become her country's next president.

It has gathered nearly five million signatures in support of its petition for a change to the Constitution; the charter in its present form bars people with foreign family ties from the top post, and Suu Kyi's late husband and two sons are foreigners.

Last week, the NLD formally asked Parliament to vote to, essentially, remove the army's veto on any change to the charter. It pointed to those signatures as evidence of popular backing for its cause.

But for all its troubles, the NLD is unlikely to succeed.

The writing on the wall is that the 69-year-old Nobel Laureate is unlikely to ever be president of Myanmar.

There are many reasons, the first of which is the maths involved. A quarter of Parliament's 664 seats are reserved for the military. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has another 336.

The army can easily combine its 166 votes with the USDP's to block any move to amend Article 436 - which states that constitutional amendments have to be approved by more than three-quarters of sitting Members of Parliament (MPs).

In effect, Article 436 gives the army veto powers over any changes to the Constitution, including to the clause that bars Suu Kyi from the presidency even if the NLD wins next year's elections.

The NLD, which boycotted the 2010 elections which brought the USDP to power in the quasi-civilian government, has just 43 seats won in the 2012 by-elections.

"They (the army) want a disciplined democracy,'' a Yangon-based diplomat said of the military-backed government. "That means open gradually, don't get too ambitious... The regime wants to play safe. They will allow minor change but for the next five to 10 years, you won't see any major changes.''

There is no doubt that Suu Kyi is popular, and her personal charisma is likely to carry her party to a win in the next general election late next year.

But some analysts say the NLD may not get a landslide victory, and Suu Kyi may have to bargain with either the USDP or the army to form a government. The best outcome for the country, said one analyst who is close to the government, would be an alliance of the NLD with the army.

But he also warned that "the USDP is not that hopeless''.

Indeed, the government received high approval ratings in a poll of 3,000 voters across Myanmar from last December to February this year, conducted by the US-based International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy organisation run by Senator John McCain.

The USDP-led government scored well in practical categories like administration, while the NLD did well in terms of aspirational values like democracy and rights.
President Thein Sein even beat Suu Kyi narrowly in the personal popularity stakes.

While he has reportedly indicated that he would not offer himself again, that could change. Sources say there may be pressure on him to agree to a second term.

Myanmar politics is notoriously at once Machiavellian and mercurial, and Suu Kyi is not without strong rivals in her bid for the presidency.

The other serious contender is the leader of the USDP, Thura Shwe Mann. The 67-year-old politician is well known to be eyeing the presidency.

As Speaker of Parliament, he has been vigorously pushing reforms, which will burnish his credentials in the presidential race.

The NLD's signature campaign has also soured the detente Suu Kyi had with the government and the army. After two years of taking a soft line on the military, she is now saying there's no room for the men in uniform in a real democracy.

Her change of tone and seeming impatience risk alienating the powerful army men and key government figures whose support is critical if she is to overcome the constitutional obstacles in the way of her presidential hopes.

Even in Ms Suu Kyi's own party, there are doubters, like the blunt-speaking Win Htein, an MP from Meiktila and a member of the party's central committee.

"The USDP will not agree to do it (amend the Constitution), so there is no opportunity for her to become president,'' he told The Straits Times.

The president is chosen by a vote in Parliament where, however well the NLD does in the elections, it will still run up against the military bloc.
The best Suu Kyi can hope for is for her party to be in power, possibly in alliance with others or even in a grand bargain with the military.

Without key amendments to the Constitution, she would have to accept a role - possibly that of Speaker of Parliament - that, while probably influential, would not be the same as being president.

For over four decades, the military has advocated "disciplined democracy". It tends to take a dim view of civilian politicians, seeing them as a fractious, unruly lot.

Given Myanmar's long history of internal conflicts, the men in uniform are unlikely to cede more ground so soon.
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