Myanmar Election Commission Announces Overwhelming Opposition Victory
Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy party has recorded an overwhelming victory in the 1 April by-elections that have been widely praised by Western countries, which are now considering further lifting of sanctions.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
The main opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) has won at least 40 of a total of 45 vacant seats contested in the by-election, the Union Election Commission confirmed yesterday (2 April).
The NLD's landslide victory, signalling widespread support for the opposition party despite the government's reform efforts, is undoubtedly a blow to the military-affiliated ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). However, it does not alter the balance of power in parliament.
Following largely successful polls, Western governments are recognising an increasingly positive momentum behind Myanmar and will move to review their sanction regimes. Although complete lifting of sanctions is unrealistic, further relaxing or lifting of some of the sanctions can be expected.
NLD supporters celebrate their victory in Yangon on 1 April 2012.
Myanmar's Union Election Commission yesterday (2 April) formally confirmed the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party's landslide victory in the 1 April by-elections. According to the commission's partial poll results aired by state radio and television, the NLD has so far won at least 40 of a total of 45 vacant seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament as well as in contested regional assemblies. Thirty-five of the seats are for the House of Representatives, three for House of Nationalities and two for regional or state parliament. The results of the remaining seats from five remote constituencies have not yet been announced, the Associated Press reports.
According to NLD's own election tally, as announced yesterday, the party won at least 43 seats, with the NDL leader and the democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, securing a seat in parliament for the first time by winning more than 85% of the votes in Kawhmu township in Yangon against candidates from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the Unity and Peace Party (see Myanmar: 2 April 2012: Myanmar's Opposition Eyes Sweeping By-Election Victory).
The NLD's clear victory, signalling widespread support for the opposition party despite the government's ongoing reform efforts, is undoubtedly a blow to the military-affiliated USDP, whose candidates campaigned vigorously ahead of the polls. Having said that, although the NLD has won by-elections with a landslide, the number of seats it is set to hold only accounts for less than 10% of a total 664 seats in the national parliament. With the USDP holding overwhelming majority following the 2010 elections, the by-election victory does not alter the balance of power in parliament. Yet the polls have been widely praised by the international community as an important step in Myanmar's democratic transition.
In a statements issued on Monday, the White House congratulated the people of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi on a strong showing in the landmark polls. It also called the by-election "an important step in Burma's democratic transformation" adding that the United States hoped it was "an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency, and reform". EU representative Catherine Ashton yesterday also congratulated "the government and people of Myanmar" on the successful conduct of the weekend's elections, pledging support to the country's ongoing reforms. Although the polls were not without complaints of shortcomings, particularly from the NLD, the statements give a further positive signal for the Myanmar government of Western governments' changing perceptions.
The by-elections have been widely touted as a key test of Myanmar's fledgling democratic system and the conduct of free and fair polls has been made a key condition by a number of Western countries for easing their various sanction regimes, something the new semi-civilian government has been working towards by instituting a number of reforms in the political sphere over the past months (see Myanmar: 28 October 2012: Myanmar Parliament Passes Amendments to Political Party Registration Law and Myanmar: 13 December 2011: Myanmar Opposition Wins Permission to Register as Legal Political Party). Yesterday, Reuters reported that the European Commission had hinted that EU foreign ministers would begin lifting of sanctions on Myanmar in recognition of the ongoing changes in the former military ruled state. "We do expect the foreign ministers will recognise the changes and there will be a positive signal from the Council," EU foreign affairs spokesman Maja Kocijancic said in a daily news briefing, adding that it will be "for the Foreign Affairs Council to decide unanimously how to address this issue and the extent to which sanctions are eased and lifted". EU foreign ministers are set to meet on 23 April to discuss on easing of sanctions, Kocijancic said.
Outlook and Implications
Following largely successful by-elections and the historic victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD, which won the 1990 election but was never allowed to govern by the military junta, Western governments are recognising an increasingly positive momentum behind Myanmar. However, the by-elections were hardly a real test for the new semi-civilian government's commitment to democracy, given that it was always going to be a low-risk undertaking for the government, which will see its legitimacy enhanced without the possibility of a tipping of the current balance of power in parliament (see Myanmar: 28 March 2012: Key By-Elections Seen As Test of Myanmar's Political Reforms). In a country where democratic election results have in the past been bypassed and there remain considerable tensions between reformers and hardliners in the government, the real test will probably only come when the country heads for the next general election, which is scheduled to take place by November 2015. Although it will be difficult to justify a complete lifting of sanctions as long as conflict in ethnic minority areas persists and an unknown number of political prisoners remain behind bars, Western governments are keen to support the reform-minded people in Myanmar's government against the hardliners to sustain the positive impetus, and can be expected to move to ease some of the sanctions against the South-East Asian country. The most likely results of sanctions reviews will be further relaxing or lifting of travel restrictions and asset freezes, and certain export and import activities could also be allowed.
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