Myanmar Elections: Coups, Competition, and Compromise

Lady with flag
Teaser Image Caption
A young lady holding NLD flag and cheering during the speech of voting campaign in Yangon, Myanmar on 6 October 2015

Myanmar and its power elites do not have experience with electoral politics. That makes Myanmar’s elections exciting, and at the same time risky.

Coup first

Coups are as important as elections in Myanmar – if not more. Although Myanmar has witnessed five competitive elections since independence in 1948, two coups d’état in 1962 and 1988 ensured the rule of dictatorships for half a century, up until 2011.

Perhaps in line with this tradition, two (almost simultaneous) coups have occurred inside the parties of the two biggest political rivals – the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – just a short time before the elections on November 8.

Popular activists from the 88 Generation Group – including U Ko Ko Gyi, one of the most prominent activists – were invited publicly to stand for election under the NLD banner. U Ko Ko Gyi has often been regarded as a person with presidential potential, second only to Aung San Suu Kyi. But the activists were unexpectedly and ceremoniously rejected just days ahead of the candidate nomination deadline. This spectacular act created public fallout between the NLD and the 88 Generation, which, in turn, shocked voters and further split the broader pro-democracy movement. People close to the party said that an internal coup d’état was staged, which led to the rejection of 88 Generation leaders.

A few days later, the USDP followed suit. It ousted its chairman, Shwe Mann,[1] former general and declared friend of Aung San Suu Kyi, after a public power struggle within the party. U Thein Sein – president of the country and also the chairman of the USDP who, in line with the Constitution, cannot refuse to be active in party politics – was reconfirmed as chairman.

First lesson about Myanmar elections: coups precede competition.


After these coups, the USDP – ruptured by competition between the two leaders U Thein Sein and U Shwe Mann – was re-integrated under U Thein Sein, at least on the surface. The NLD, however, failed to unite the larger pro-democracy movement under its banner.

There are several key questions about the competition between the USDP and the NLD. A popular one is: “Will Aung San Suu Kyi become president?” Yet, this question has now become a cliché, as many people repeatedly have asked and answered it. A more up-to-date question would be: “Will Aung San Suu Kyi become Speaker of the Parliament or seek another influential post, which she is not constitutionally constrained from obtaining?”

Though many might think the position of Speaker of the Parliament is a demotion, in fact this role could be a blessing in disguise for Aung San Suu Kyi. According to the Constitution, the president has to stay out of party politics while in office. Her party, the NLD, is far from a finished product. If as president she were fully occupied with the affairs of the state, her party might be weakened. Political infighting in the ruling party in the 1950s is a good example. The NLD may need close mentoring from its powerful chairman to institutionally develop. As Speaker of the Parliament, she would not be involved in the daily running of the government, which also comes with criticism and high expectations.

So, the Speaker position might even be her Plan A. Giving up on the presidency may thus become a bargain chip in future deals.

Follow-up questions are: “Did she offer the Presidency to her friend and rival U Shwe Mann? Why did U Shwe Mann decide to befriend her and take the risk to alienate the establishment?”

To U Shwe Mann, the only promotion would be to the presidency. He already has everything except the presidency: he is very rich, was no. 3 in the previous government, and Speaker of the Parliament. Since he flourished and survived in the military, he knows the workings and psychology of the military and the establishment well. This may have led him to take this risk. Now, despite – or maybe because of – being ousted as chairman of the USDP, many are sympathetic towards Shwe Mann, and he has even become a “democracy champion” in public opinion. His wealth is intact. And he can still hope for the presidency in the case that the NLD wins the elections and still needs him as partner.

It seems Aung San Suu Kyi has found the weak link in the establishment in U Shwe Mann, who is also on the lookout for a complementary partner in the democratic camp. Apparently, the pair has reached a deal without the knowledge even of their parties.

A wild card in the elections will be the nationalist Buddhist movement called Ma-Ba-Tha, which perceives that Buddhism in Myanmar is under threat. Ma-Ba-Tha is mainly against the NLD – a mutual love. This could mean trouble for the NLD in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, even though currently the NLD is trying to reach out to influential monks.

Ethnic minority parties will also play an important role, as ethnic minorities will most likely be voting along ethnic lines. Many ethnic minority parties, including former allies of the NLD, are not happy with the NLD’s foray into their regions. To them, the NLD is more of a competitor than the USDP, as anti-establishment votes would be split between the NLD and ethnic minorities’ parties.


Unless the NLD wins enough constituencies to form a government on its own, it would have to form a coalition with others, including the USDP. And even if it can form a government on its own, it cannot rule effectively without the acquiescence or cooperation from the establishment.

The best that the USDP can hope for is a minority government with the military and perhaps ethnic parties – or to become a strong opposition force. It seems the establishment has already accepted the likelihood of the NLD winning the elections.

The military intends to be a check-and-balance vis-à-vis the new power holders, possibly a civilian government that is confrontational towards the military. To the military, a post-elections scenario with two dozen armed groups being active, a rivalry between China and the United States in Myanmar, and the NLD with Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm merely holding the party together looks much like the dreaded 1950s. Back then, during political infighting in the ruling party, direct interference from big countries such as China and United States as well as civil war almost destroyed the young nation.

Ethnic minority parties are waiting for the elections to negotiate further autonomy. Their aim is to rule their own states. So the post-election landscape depends on horse-trading and backroom deals in the months after election day. Tensions and uncertainty could be high following the announcement of results and until the president is elected and the cabinet formed.

Particularly alarming is that Myanmar and its power elites do not have experience with electoral politics. That makes Myanmar’s elections exciting, and at the same time risky.

This article is part of our dossier: Elections in Myanmar.


[1] [Annotation by the editor]: Under the last military rule, Shwe Mann had been no. 3 in the military hierarchy. He had long been a USDP favourite for the presidential candidature. The night he was ousted, August 12, USDP Party Headquarters in Naypyitaw was surrounded by security personnel. Party members inside the building were not allowed to leave and no one was allowed inside. This “publicly” celebrated internal coup was regarded by observers as a sign to Shwe Mann – but also to the NLD – not to overplay his cards. Shwe Mann himself had in the months prior to the ousting (i) more or less publicly flirted with Aung San Suu Kyi to form a coalition with him as president, (ii) supported a (unsuccessful) parliamentary petition that would have restricted the military’s blocking minority for constitutional changes, and (iii) rejected about two-thirds of the military candidates for the elections.