YANGON, Myanmar — The next general election, scheduled for late this year, is not shaping up to be the benchmark of democratic consolidation that many Myanmar observers had hoped. The government, which is still largely controlled by senior military officers, has failed to strike a power-sharing agreement with either the mainstream opposition or ethnic armed resistance groups. Not only does this endanger the legitimacy of the election, it also exposes a dangerous leadership vacuum within both the government and the opposition.
In 2011, the junta that had ruled the country for over two decades undertook vast reforms. The 2008 military-drafted Constitution remained, and the new president, Thein Sein, was a high-ranking general. But the new government formally became civilian, and the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to participate in politics again: Her National League for Democracy (N.L.D.) ran in the April 2012 by-elections. Though that helped legitimize the new government, it also gave the opposition a place in Parliament, and it suggested that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would eventually be permitted to run for president.
Today, that tacit understanding looks like it was a form of cooptation. Since the defeat of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (U.S.D.P.) at the 2012 polls — the N.L.D. won 43 of the 44 seats it contested — both the Thein Sein administration and the military have been anxious not to lose any more ground.
Notably, the government has been resisting calls to amend the 2008 Constitution. One controversial clause bars any citizen of Myanmar with a foreign spouse or foreign children, like Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, from running for president. Another set of provisions limits the rights of ethnic minorities. There has been little progress on changing those clauses partly because of various divisions within the establishment: both between military hard-liners and self-styled democratic reformists, and among the reformists.
For a time, the Thein Sein administration seemed to be pushing hard to conclude a nationwide cease-fire accord with armed ethnic groups, which have waged war against the central government for over six decades, demanding equal rights and a federal union. A successful deal would perk up the ruling party ahead of the election. Failing that, the effort itself might earn the government some credit, while deflating the opposition’s calls for extensive reform.
Some major ethnic armed groups and the government agreed on a draft text on March 31, but the deal has yet to be signed. While the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of ethnic groups, has been insisting that all armed groups should be involved, the military has refused to deal with the Kokang, whose insurgents have been fighting it especially hard.
Yet even as the military scuttled the Thein Sein administration’s efforts on the cease-fire accord, its representatives in Parliament urgently endorsed a motion to pass new laws guaranteeing “power-sharing, resource-sharing and tax-sharing” rights for ethnic minority states and self-administered areas. This was a gambit by the generals to win over the ethnic political parties in Parliament, as well as score points for getting something done when the government is stumbling.
The so-called reformists are also divided. The House speaker, Thura Shwe Mann — the third most-powerful general in the junta, who had expected to become president in 2011 — has mobilized Parliament to pressure Thein Sein into holding multiparty talks on constitutional reform; this, in order both to assert himself and make an overture to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. A meeting was held last month — with Thein Sein, Thura Shwe Mann, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the army chief, among others — but no substantive progress was made, only underscoring the various splits within the establishment.
Even if an elite consensus could be struck, it would be exceedingly difficult to modify the Constitution in time for the election, at least if it is to be held in November, as currently planned. Amending the text’s most significant provisions, including those on the eligibility of presidential candidates, requires both over a 75 percent majority in Parliament and a simple majority in a national referendum.
That is a very high bar to pass at any time, but it would be a logistical nightmare to organize a national plebiscite during the monsoon season, when even the main roads in Myanmar’s major cities get flooded. And since the Constitution allots 25 percent of the seats in Parliament to the military, the generals in effect have veto power over any constitutional reform. The army chief has said that the Constitution, which grants the military vast prerogatives, should not be amended so long as it guarantees the country’s stability.
Sources close to the military have told me that they think the Constitution will not be amended before the election, and that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi stands virtually no chance of running for the presidency this time. Yet it is still unclear who else the N.L.D. may field as its presidential candidate: Thanks partly to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s secretive, personality-driven style, there are no designated second-line leaders within the party.
Still, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has a decisive role to play in the election. Even if she does not run for president, the N.L.D. is expected to win a majority in Parliament, meaning that she could become House speaker, a powerful position with control over the legislature’s agenda and procedures. And because of infighting on the establishment side, she may wind up being the election’s kingmaker.
Under Myanmar’s nominally parliamentary system, the president is not directly elected by the people, but through a complicated parliamentary procedure: After the popular vote, incoming members of Parliament elect the president by a simple majority from among three vice-presidential candidates, two of them nominated by each of the houses of Parliament, and the third by military representatives.
Since the ruling U.S.D.P. is unlikely to win a majority in either house, both Thein Sein and Thura Shwe Mann would need the military’s endorsement to become president. But Thein Sein, once the protégé of the former dictator Than Shwe, has been falling out of favor: The generals think he kowtows to the West and is too soft on ethnic armed groups. And they are wary of Thura Shwe Mann, whom they suspect of seeking rapprochement with the opposition.
Some N.L.D. insiders have indeed suggested that Ms. Aung Sang Suu Kyi might endorse Thura Shwe Mann for president over someone from her own party. They say she may be hoping that once in power Thura Shwe Mann would then push through the reforms needed to eventually make her eligible for the presidency — a questionable proposition, and reminiscent of her tacit understanding with Thein Sein, which is the main cause of the current deadlock.
All this uncertainty might seem like good reason to postpone the election: Better that than risk seeing the military refuse to honor the results or a full-on confrontation over reform. But a delay is also an unattractive option for the generals, as it would hurt their standing, especially internationally.
This quandary only goes to show that it isn’t the next election that should be considered a measure of Myanmar’s progress toward democratization. Rather, the real test is whether the country’s political elites can finally come to a viable power-sharing agreement. Short of such a deal, leadership vacuums on all sides will threaten the country’s stability even if the election takes place.
Min Zin is a contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog Democracy Lab, and serves as a Myanmar expert for think tanks and NGOs like Freedom House.