Myanmar election: Opposition hails victory, but will military cede power?

Unofficial results point to a landslide for the National League for Democracy in Sunday's election, the first democratic vote since 1990.  

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
People gather to buy merchandise with pictures of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at a shop run by her National League of Democracy party in Yangon, Myanmar, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015. Her party, which appears headed for a massive election victory, accused the government election panel Tuesday of intentionally delaying results, saying it may be trying 'to play a trick.'

Two days after Myanmar’s most openly contested vote in 25 years, only a fraction of official results have been announced. But credible estimates point to a landslide for the opposition National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi and a massive blow to the military-backed ruling party. 

NLD supporters say their apparent victory shows a deep-rooted yearning for democracy and an end to decades of military rule.

Yet the real test is still to come. Analyst say the key question is whether or not the military establishment will really yield authority to a people's movement that has included peasants, poets and rappers. And the glacial pace of election results has sparked speculation that the military is reluctant to accept its defeat. 

Official results were supposed to be available within 48 hours. Instead, they have trickled in, even as the NLD projects that it would win more than 80 percent of contested seats.

Asked to explain the delay, Myint Naing, an official of the Union Election Commission, blamed the complexity of gathering information from rural areas. “It depends on the situation,” in each polling station, he says. “We are doing our best, and awaiting data and documentation,” he said, adding that it was difficult to say how many more days were required.

If past is prologue, the next few days will be crucial. In 1990, the NLD won a similar landslide in an open election. Two months later, the military said the election had not been for seats in parliament but instead for a constitution-drafting assembly. The junta stayed in power, and most of the NLD’s leadership was jailed for protesting the announcement.

Circumstances have greatly changed since 1990. That election was held two years after a mass uprising against dictator Ne Win, who handed over power to another junta. Sunday’s election came four years after that junta dissolved itself and handed over power to a semi-civilian government chosen under a 2008 constitution that reserves a quarter of seats in parliament for the military. The constitution also bars Aung San Suu Kyi from taking the presidency.

"The focus is now on the transition period," says Thiha Saw, a veteran journalist, now with the Myanmar Journalism Institute.

The chances of a violent repeat of 1990 are relatively small, he says. The government invited in international election observers and has been careful to be seen holding a credible and fair poll. Given the popularity of NLD rallies, and of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, the inevitability of an opposition victory was already evident, and the real question was how much it would win by. 

Military grip is loosening 

Since the military holds an effective veto on constitutional change by dint of its 25 percent bloc of seats, a full transition to civilian rule is at least years away, say analysts. The military also has a stranglehold on the ministries of defense, internal security, and border affairs. And former and current army officers have a lot to lose, if the NLD or some opposition bloc begins to threaten their considerable stakes in the economy.

With poll announcements staggered every few hours by the election commission, fewer than half of the 498 seats in the upper and lower houses combined have been officially declared. But already they give an overwhelming majority to the NLD.

The NLD’s campaign manager, U Win Htein, said the party’s data from polling stations indicated victories in more than 82 percent of contested constituencies. “I think all the USDP titans have fallen,” said Win Htein, referring to leaders of the ruing Union Solidarity and Development Party. Several have already conceded defeat in their constituencies.

A former Army captain who joined the NLD in 1988, Win Htein was one of hundreds of NLD members who spent more than a decade in jail as a political prisoner. “It’s better than a Hollywood movie,” he says.

Outside the NLD headquarters on Sunday night, hundreds wearing red gathered as the vote count unfolded before them on a giant LED screen. They danced and sang and waved cameras to the rhythm of rock and rap songs; a celebrated singer interspersed her songs with vote results. A collective roar answered each NLD win.

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