Supporters of Myanmar's pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi gather outside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2015.
Jorge Silva / Reuters

For most of Myanmar’s 51 million people, the nationwide legislative election on November 8 was their first opportunity to cast a vote in a competitive election. Less than five years after the country’s military junta handed over power to a semi-civilian administration that rapidly undertook many reforms, nearly all of the 498 elected seats in the national assembly were vigorously contested.

The election was not without flaws, particularly in its disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya in the country’s western reaches, but it did offer those with a vote a real choice among the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by incumbent President Thein Sein; the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi; and 88 other parties, many of them representing various minority ethnic groups. Most official results have not yet been released, but observers’ tallies at polling places around the country suggest that the NLD is on track to win a majority in both houses of the national legislature.

The NLD performed well despite a number of obstacles, some of them put in place by the ruling party, others of the party’s own making. Incumbent lawmakers from the ruling USDP were well known in their home districts, and had the money for plenty of local largesse over the last two years. By contrast, NLD candidates were young, unknown, and in some states, couldn’t even speak the language of voters in their district, having been chosen primarily for their loyalty to Suu Kyi rather than local ties. Moreover, in many ethnic minority areas, NLD candidates faced down challenges not just from the USDP, but from members of ethnic national parties who were thought to have an advantage on their home turf. It did not matter. The scale of the NLD’s victory across the country is a testament to the enduring popularity of Suu Kyi, and the confidence voters place in her to bring prosperity to Myanmar.

Supporters of Myanmar's pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi gather outside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2015.
Supporters of Myanmar's pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi gather outside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2015.
Jorge Silva / Reuters
But before the NLD can even begin to set about the difficult task of meeting those extremely high expectations, it will face a series of delicate challenges. The announcement of election results over the coming days will merely set the terms of a high-stakes struggle to define power-sharing arrangements in the new Myanmar over the next five years and beyond. In the process, Suu Kyi’s relationship with the military will need to be renegotiated.

BIG MANDATE, SMALL CONSTITUTION

Suu Kyi’s immediate challenge will be to chart a democratic course under the strictures of the 2008 constitution, which was written by—and reserves significant powers for—the military. Under the constitution, only 75 percent of the seats in the bicameral legislature were up for election; the other 25 percent will be appointed by the military. In other words, under the current system, any party that does not enjoy the support of the military must win two-thirds of all elected seats to have a majority in either house. Any amendment to the constitution requires approval of more than 75 percent of the legislature, so the military can always block changes that would dilute its power.

Aung San Suu Kyi veteran opposition leader told an interviewer last month that if the NLD wins, “I’m going to be the leader of that government whether or not I am president.”
Even in the absence of these constraints, Suu Kyi and the NLD would likely find instituting further reforms difficult; the constitution reserves further significant executive powers for the military. For example, the commander-in-chief of the military is not appointed by nor is accountable to the president. The person in this role retains the right to appoint the defense minister, home minister, and border affairs minister. These ministers control key areas that citizens would like to see reformed, such as the release of political prisoners.

More problematic are the requirements for the presidency. In February, the newly elected legislature will convene to select a president. Representatives will divide into three groups. Elected members of the upper house, elected members of the lower house, and appointed military members of the legislature will all caucus separately, and each will nominate one candidate for president. All members will then vote on the three candidates, with the recipient of the most votes becoming president. A lengthy transition period will end when the new president is sworn in on March 31.

Individuals with close foreign relatives are ineligible for the presidency, a clause that the military wrote into the constitution in order to disqualify Suu Kyi, who was married to the British academic Michael Aris and whose two sons are British, from holding the presidency. Yet the veteran opposition leader told an interviewer last month that if the NLD wins, “I’m going to be the leader of that government whether or not I am president.” Three days before the vote, she further clarified that she would “be above the president.

THE ODD COUPLE

Former Myanmar ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chief Shwe Mann campaigns at a village near his hometown Kanyuntkwin, Myanmar, November 4, 2015.
Former Myanmar ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) chief Shwe Mann campaigns at a village near his hometown Kanyuntkwin, Myanmar, November 4, 2015.
Olivia Harris / Reuters
For much of the past three years, speculation about who Suu Kyi would support for the presidency centered on Shwe Mann, the chairman of the ruling party and speaker of the lower house. The speaker is a former general who held high office under the military junta, but he has proved himself to be a capable politician in Myanmar’s new democratic circumstances. He led the legislature in challenging the Thein Sein administration on key points of policy, and developed an image as a populist reformer.

Although Shwe Mann harbored ambitions to become president in his own right, he and Suu Kyi struck up an unlikely partnership. Neither would reveal much in interviews, but many in Myanmar speculated that the NLD might support Shwe Mann for the presidency in exchange for an undefined power-sharing arrangement. Suu Kyi’s blessing would bestow international legitimacy, while Shwe Mann’s involvement would mollify the military brass.

Foreign diplomats expressed doubt as to whether such an arrangement, with power shared between two famously ambitious and stubborn figures, could have ever been truly viable. “I just don’t think Suu Kyi understands that no one wants to play second fiddle,” said one who asked not to be named.  But as late as July, it still appeared to be each leader’s preferred option. Then in August, Shwe Mann was ousted as party chair by Thein Sein and the military. Although he continued to serve as speaker, he was seriously weakened. On election day, he was defeated in a race for a lower house seat representing his hometown.

Various theories circulated as to why Shwe Mann had been ousted, but most assume that the military, particularly commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, had become concerned about Shwe Mann’s power within the USDP and feared he might use it to advance his partnership with Suu Kyi in a way that benefitted Shwe Mann personally but disadvantaged the military. Whatever their reasons, the move temporarily ended the prospects for cooperation between the USDP and the NLD. 

Although an alliance has not been ruled out, the benefits are now less clear. When Shwe Mann still appeared to carry significant authority among the military and in the ruling party, he might have assuaged his former colleagues’ fears about the NLD. But with him on the outside, Suu Kyi looks likely to choose a more pliant figure from within her own party for the presidency, while she leads the new administration in practice.

CAN THEY WORK TOGETHER?

The critical question, then, is whether Suu Kyi and the military can come to a stable modus vivendi over the coming months. The military designed the current constitution to safeguard its interests even in the event of a landslide NLD victory, so it can be expected to respect the results of the election so long as the constitution remains intact. But Suu Kyi has made clear that so long as she cannot change the constitution, she intends to circumvent it, and it is not clear that the military will accept this.

Following Suu Kyi’s assertion prior to the election that she would “be above the president,” rival USDP officials quickly noted that the constitution stipulates that the president “takes precedence over all other persons in Myanmar,” and called her plan unconstitutional. (The objection lacks credibility, since the same document also places the military commander-in-chief outside the authority of the president, but the military is unlikely to see this as a question of legal scholarship).

Although the military does not appear keen to take back power—over the last five years, international recognition and investment have given the generals incentive to not roll back democracy—the constitution does provide for that possibility in the case of a national emergency, a provision that can never be far from Suu Kyi’s mind. If she were to wage an extended campaign on the streets for constitutional change, she might quickly find herself back under house arrest and Myanmar back under military rule.

Fortunately, early indications are that there may be some flexibility in positions on both sides. Suu Kyi has said she will seek to deliver a “government of national reconciliation” and will not investigate the crimes of the previous regime, and the military has repeatedly promised to respect the election results. Those words will have to become actions in the coming months if Myanmar’s leaders are to govern effectively.

FIVE-YEAR PLAN

Myanmar faces two other considerable challenges—sectarian tensions and ethnic insurgencies—that are fundamental to the character of the state. On each of these issues, the military views itself as the guardian of the country’s sovereignty and unity, principles the NLD is also eager to be seen as defending. Progress in these areas will be difficult to achieve, but a cooperative relationship between Suu Kyi and the military will improve its odds.

A supporter of Myanmar's pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi sits inside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2015.
A supporter of Myanmar's pro-democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi sits inside National League for Democracy headquarters (NLD) in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2015.
Jorge Silva / Reuters
Sectarian tensions over the last three years have led to a spate of attacks by Buddhist extremists on Myanmar’s Muslim population. (In Rakhine State, where the violence has been most severe, sectarian problems are overlaid by additional ethnic tensions between Rakhine, who are Buddhists, and Rohingya, who are Muslims). Although the violence has been widely condemned abroad, few in Myanmar among the outgoing government, opposition, or civil society have been willing to stand up for the rights of Myanmar’s Muslims.

During the recent campaign, figures close to the government and to Buddhist extremists accused Suu Kyi of secret Muslim sympathies, which she denied. Neither the military nor the NLD are likely to take the initiative in defending the rights of Myanmar’s Muslims now, but international pressure on them to address the problem is more likely to be effective if they can reach an arrangement to govern together after the election, rather than a situation in which each is seeking to impugn the other’s nationalist credentials.

The new leadership will also inherit a peace process between the central government and ethnic armed organizations that seeks to end various insurgencies, some of which have been waged since independence in 1948. These conflicts create space for illicit businesses, including trade in narcotics, gems, timber, and other goods, which in turn fund the activities of the crony capitalists that dominate Myanmar’s economy.

A ceasefire agreement was reached on October 15 by eight of the ethnic armed groups, but seven others declined to sign, and three groups that the government considers less legitimate were not invited. Over the past four years, the military has frequently balked at concessions to insurgents in negotiations, and Suu Kyi has shown limited interest in the process thus far. Further concessions by the central government will be difficult, and will go to the heart of constitutional arrangements in this multiethnic state. Cooperation and trust between Suu Kyi and the military will be crucial to further progress, now that they are seated on the same side of the negotiating table.

More broadly, how Suu Kyi and the military approach the next five months, and whether they can work out an understanding of how power is to be shared in the new Myanmar, will be critical to the country’s fortunes in each of these issues and many others over the course of the next five years and beyond.