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November’s election keeps being described as a turning point in Burma’s transition to democracy. But Burma isn’t transitioning to democracy. It is transitioning into a new form of hybrid regime. The first major step in the reform process was the implementation of the undemocratic 2008 Constitution. The elections tomorrow take place under that constitution. Of course the military know the National League for Democracy (NLD) is likely to win the most seats, or even its hoped-for landslide. Of course they know there is a chance of the NLD forming a government, if not at this election, then at some point in the future. After all these years of planning, do people seriously think the military have left anything to chance?
With the 2008 Constitution, the military carefully designed a political structure that preserves their power and influence, even if the NLD or another non-military party is in government. Even if the NLD wins, in parliament the military have 25 percent of the seats and veto power over constitutional change.
In government they appoint key ministers such as defence, home affairs and border affairs. This means an NLD-led government will not have control over the armed forces, the police or justice system, or over the most critical and sensitive political issue in Burma: policy in ethnic states. Under an NLD government, a serving soldier involved in war crimes could still be serving as Home Affairs minister and ordering the arrest and prosecution of peaceful protestors.
Most government departments already contained many staff with military backgrounds, but many new military appointments are being made. How will an NLD minister with no experience or even specific policies stamp their authority and implement policies in military dominated government departments?
Burma has a parliamentary electoral system but a presidential form of government. Parliament has no authority to hold the government to account. Neither parliament nor the government have the authority to hold the military to account. Above both parliament and government is the military-controlled National Defence and Security Council. Constitutionally, this is the most powerful body in the country, and can be used at any time needed.
In the unlikely event all its other fail-safes do fail, as its ultimate security, the military has the legal right to have a coup, taking back direct day-to-day control, for vague and unspecified national security and unity reasons. As if any future NLD or other government weren’t already hamstrung enough, the ever-hanging threat of a coup can also be used to limit what the NLD does.
The military obviously won’t want there to be an NLD landslide at the election. The promotion of Ma-Ba-Tha, unfair election rules, and a hundred other small and large tactics are being used to try to limit their success. Nor do they want Aung San Suu Kyi as president. She is too powerful a political figure to risk allowing to be president. But no other figure in Burma carries the clout she does, and the constitution is designed to allow an NLD victory as long as she isn’t running the government.
An NLD-led government is likely to be a big improvement on one led by Thein Sein. Many hope new political space can be expanded in ways the military neither expect nor planned for, chipping away at their power and securing more rights. This is likely to be a long slow process with human rights violations, poverty, and conflict continuing for many years to come. For these people, the slow pace of change is literally a matter of life or death.
Although it could usher in welcome change for many, tomorrow’s election won’t be a turning point in a transition to democracy as it is being talked up to be. Instead, it is another step in the military’s carefully thought-out plan to transition from direct military rule and pariah status to a new hybrid authoritarian state which is accepted by the international community. The military have as much at stake as anyone in Burma in ensuring November’s elections go smoothly. Regardless of votes cast on the day, they have made sure they’ll be the ultimate winners.
Mark Farmaner is Director of Burma Campaign UK