Survey finds wide support for Suu Kyi but army dominance will remain

Late on Friday night, as most of the city slept, over 5000 people — men, women, children in equal measure — sang, danced, and clapped in downtown Yangon. On a make-shift stage in the middle of a road, a local candidate of the National League for Democracy (NLD) waved.

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The party's trademark banners with large images of ‘The Lady' — Aung San Suu Kyi — fluttered. Artists entertained the crowds with song after song, some well-known going back to the days of the independence struggle, and many of more recent vintage. Children got on to mini-trucks to catch a glimpse of performers; young men were banging heads, laughing; and when asked to raise their arms and swing along with the music, every one responded. The joy was palpable, and excitement intoxicating. NLD workers at the political rally cited the mood as proof of the ‘wave' in their favour.

Their claims will be tested on Sunday, as voters select representatives for 45 seats in by-elections. Thirtyseven of the seats are for the Lower House of the national Parliament, six for the Upper House, and two more for regional assemblies. According to the Union Election Commission, 157 candidates from 17 political parties are in the fray. Most of the attention, however, is on the NLD, which is participating for the first time in over 22 years — after their victory in the 1990 polls was not recognised by the ruling military junta.

Opinion poll

In another first of its kind, an opinion poll — conducted by Mizimma, an independent news and opinion website — in three regions where polling is to take place highlighted majority support for NLD.

Soe Myint, founder-editor of Mizimma, told The Hindu, “60 per cent of the respondents said they will vote for an NLD candidate. The party should be able to win between 30-35 seats.” Thirtytwo per cent in the poll backed the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, set up by the military two years ago as part of the transition to ‘civilian' rule. The survey report says the race is particularly tight in the administrative capital, Naypyitaw, ‘because of the large number of government employees, many of whom are indebted to the government-backed USDP'.

Others are not quite as sure of NLD's prospects. Kyaw Hlaing is a leading member of the 88 generation group, a loose conglomeration of the student protesters of that year who have continued to remain engaged politically.

At a coffee-shop, he told The Hindu, “I want The Lady to win all seats if possible. But USDP has government support, an organisational structure, and has worked on the ground. Through micro-finance, it is even buying votes in rural areas. We don't know if crowds will translate into votes. My guess is 20-25 seats for NLD.” When asked if the government in fact had an interest in seeing NLD do well to bolster claims of credible polls, Mr. Hliang said, “But the USDP also has an interest in proving that the 2010 elections was not based on complete fraud. There are local power interests.”

Cautious optimism

The point many make however is that irrespective of whether NLD gets a few seats more or less, it will not affect the balance of power in Parliament where the ruling USDP has an outright majority. An NLD sweep will still get the party less than 10 per cent of the total seats.

But Mr. Myint, who spent 24 years in exile in India before returning home this January after the political reforms, is hopeful. “Look, Aung San Suu Kyi's presence in Parliament is important for further political, economic and media reforms. NLD will raise specific issues, since it has fought the polls on a plank of rule of law, and constitutional amendments.” He added that the challenge would be how NLD works with the ruling party, and how they get support to amend clauses like the ones which give 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats to the military.

While the 88 generation group has supported NLD, they appear a bit more cautious. Mr. Hliang says, “Many don't trust the government's intentions, and feel it is taking too much advantage of NLD's participation right now. There is a long way to go. But we are with The Lady; we have to protect her and defend NLD from political dangers.” He felt that the challenge was to build on these by-polls and be prepared for the 2015 polls.

Despite nuanced differences among democratic activists, civil society, and journalists over the kind of transformation under way, they are all unanimous on one thing — after the first votes are cast on Sunday morning, politics in Myanmar will not be the same again.

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