Some political parties have called on the ruling National League for Democracy to form a coalition government come the November polls. Such a tactic is premature.
Nyi Nyi Kyaw
1 July 2020
Some well-known political parties in Myanmar have renewed their call for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party to promise to form a coalition government after the general elections due in November 2020. Such a call is premature.
This demand on the part of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the People’s Party (PP), both led by formerly close political allies of the NLD, seem to reflect two questionable presumptions. The two parties appear to believe, first, that the NLD is not going to win enough seats to dominate the parliament and form a cabinet on its own and, second, that they will themselves win enough seats to make up the difference.
The NLD won the general elections of November 2015 in a landslide. Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) has said that the polls due in November of this year will go ahead, despite the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
For the NLD, the 2020 elections will be different from the 2015 polls in two ways. In 2015, NLD was the popular and dominant opposition party campaigning against the ruling but relatively unpopular Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This year, it is the ruling party aiming to remain in power. Contesting against the incumbent USDP in 2015, and having never been in power, it was also relatively easy for the NLD to make a range of promises to voters. But in 2020 the party faces voters with a mixed record of good governance and questionable performance.
As the November polls approach, whether the NLD remains as popular as before and whether it will win in a landslide again are important questions. The party is certainly aware of the challenges that it faces, but it remains convinced of its popularity and potential to win.
There are thus warning signs suggesting that the popularity of the NLD should not be taken for granted in 2020, as it was in 2015. It is now commonly accepted that in most if not all of the seven ethnic states, competition between the NLD and ethnically designated parties such as the SNLD will be intense, although the NLD will still grab most seats in the seven Bamar-dominated regions.
Looking back at the extent of the NLD electoral victory in November 2015, whether the party will find itself short of seats to dominate the parliament and form a cabinet remains to be seen. In March 2016 the NLD had 390 seats in the bicameral parliament – 255 seats and 135 seats in the Lower House and the Upper House, respectively. This enabled the party to nominate a presidential candidate each at the two houses, one subsequently chosen as president and the other a vice president at the bicameral parliament.
The SNLD is believed to be popular in constituencies in Shan State, and it is expected to win no fewer seats than it did in 2015 – twelve seats in the Lower House and three seats in the Upper House. The Shan party won three Lower House seats in by-elections in 2017 and 2018.
On the other hand, chaired by prominent 1988 Generation student leader U Ko Ko Gyi, the PP is a new political party. Like the NLD and the USDP, it does not designate itself as a Bamar party, although ethnic minorities tend to view each of these parties as representatives of the country’s Bamar majority. Hence, the natural support base of the PP lies in the seven Bamar-majority regions – the same areas where the NLD remains popular. The PP may therefore neither win more than a clutch of seats nor be able to have much to offer to the NLD as part of a political bargain.
As the November polls approach, whether the NLD remains as popular as before and whether it will win in a landslide again are important questions. The party is certainly aware of the challenges that it faces, but it remains convinced of its popularity and potential to win. Even if the NLD ends up needing the support of other parties in order to govern, it may have options other than the SNLD and PP. This will include ethnic parties in Mon State and Kayin State, which are also gearing up to contest elections vigorously. That said, the NLD will only think about the mechanics of coalition formation after the result of elections is known – and not before.
Therefore, pressuring the ruling party to offer concessions and agree to a coalition five months in advance of the coming elections is neither timely nor reasonable. That pressure, which the NLD may view negatively, is likely to lead to further alienation between the NLD and the SNLD and the PP. In this light, calls for a coalition government well before the elections, and among parties which were once close allies, might not be welcome.
Nyi Nyi Kyaw is a Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously an Assistant Professor (adjunct) in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.
ISEAS Commentary — 2020/88
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