Burma's by-elections: A vote of confidence

A Burmese worker hangs up freshly silkscreened National League for Democracy party (NLD) tshirt ahead of the parliamentary elections March 26, 2012

It is hard to think of a by-election that has attracted the same level of attention as the forthcoming Burmese poll.

The presence of Aung San Suu Kyi on the campaign trail is no doubt a significant draw. But the outcome will not tilt the country's balance of power because only 45 of the more than 1,000 seats in the national and regional parliaments are being contested.

Yet this limited election is a potentially significant milestone on Burma's journey to political and diplomatic rehabilitation. Assuming, that is, the process is deemed to be "free and fair", or at least free and fair enough. Therein lies the problem.

These are the first elections to be held since a nominally civilian but still military-backed government assumed power a year ago.

The new leadership, composed largely of former generals from the old military regime, has surprised many with the speed of change.

Their reforms so far include:

  • Releasing hundreds of political prisoners (though an undetermined number remain behind bars)
  • Gradually lifting restrictions on the media
  • A nascent peace process aims to resolve long-running ethnic conflicts
  • Enacting laws allowing for the formation of trade unions and the right to protest
  • Kicking the long moribund economy back into life.

ROAD TO REFORM

  • 7 Nov 2010: First polls in 20 years
  • 13 Nov: Aung San Suu Kyi freed from house arrest
  • 30 Mar 2011: Transfer of power to new government complete
  • 19 Aug: Aung San Suu Kyi meets Burmese President Thein Sein
  • 23 Dec: NLD registers as political party
  • 12 Jan 2012: Karen ceasefire signed
  • 13 Jan: Highest-profile political prisoners freed
  • 18 Jan: Suu Kyi announces election bid
  • 1 Apr: By-election to be held

A small number of representatives from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), along with the European Union and United States, have now - rather late in the day - been invited to observe polling.

A tacit recognition perhaps that the by-elections are widely being viewed as a measure of the government's commitment to democratic principles.

If the elections get a diplomatic thumbs up, Western nations could lift more of the raft of sanctions imposed on Burma for the past two decades.

"Free and fair elections are not just about polling day itself," a Rangoon-based Western diplomat said early in the campaign, "it's about the entire process".

'Mother Suu'

There have already been allegations of irregularities during campaigning, most notably from Ms Suu Kyi, who is contesting a seat just outside Rangoon.

It is the first time she has ever run for political office and the first time her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has competed in an election since 1990, when it won a landslide.

Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi Thousands of supporters have turned out to see "Mother Suu"

The old military government annulled that result. The party boycotted the 2010 poll, dismissing it as fundamentally unfair. Ms Suu Kyi was still under house arrest at the time.

But the process of reform under way in Burma has persuaded Ms Suu Kyi, and by extension her party, to rejoin the official political fray.

Tens of thousands of supporters have turned out to see the woman, known affectionately as "Mother Suu", as she has criss-crossed the country to campaign for the NLD.

Her convoy rarely moves faster than a crawl because of the crowds of people proffering flowers, the weaving lines of dust-covered motorbikes and trucks perilously overloaded with well-wishers.

Some have questioned whether the party as a whole is too dependent on the fame and charisma of its leader.

Many of the NLD's candidates are inexperienced and have not had much time to build political platforms of their own.

But they have to start somewhere, and the by-elections are a valuable testing ground for all parties ahead of the real prize - national elections in 2015.

True democracy?

The NLD complains that it has been denied access to large stadiums during the campaign, that the names of the dead have appeared on voter lists and that the military-backed party, the USDP, is guilty of attempted vote-buying.

And the constitution already has provisions that guarantee the military a central role in politics -25% of seats in parliament are reserved for serving members of the armed forces.

These factors have prompted some to draw their conclusion before a single vote has been cast.

Burma parliament Burma has more than 1,000 seats in the national and regional parliaments

In a recent statement, Burma Partnership, a network of pro-democracy activists, said that allowing the NLD to campaign throughout the country "represents a public relations manoeuvre more than a true openness to allow the people to determine the direction in which the country should move".

"Regardless of what takes place on 1 April, the by-elections do not represent true democracy."

But do they represent an important step forward on the road towards true democracy? Much now depends on the conduct of polling itself.

For the next week, Burma, a country for so long closed to much of the outside world, will find itself the subject of unprecedented scrutiny.

Local journalists are being encouraged to act as witnesses, to report on the voting and counting of ballots.

"This is a real difference between 2010 and this time," said Thiha Saw, editor of the Open News Weekly Journal. "We are being allowed to look in any polling station in any constituency."

The international media and the handful of invited international observers will also be looking for any hint of wrongdoing. A point acknowledged by President Thein Sein in a speech delivered a week ahead of polling day.

"The attention of the whole world has focused on the by-elections" he said, before urging all people and all parties to "respect the decision of the people". This from a man who for years loyally served as a member of a military regime that routinely ignored the wishes of the people.

Burma's future prospects rest to a large extent on the president's ability to continue to drive reforms forward.

Ms Suu Kyi says she trusts him. Her vote of confidence has been largely responsible for the outside world's decision to engage with the new government. In much the same way, Western nations will be looking to her assessment of the conduct of the election before making their own pronouncements.

Words will be weighed carefully. There is far more at stake here than 45 seats in parliament.

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