While the National League for Democracy (NLD) brings high hope to Myanmar’s democratic transition, it faces vulnerability that will need to be addressed if the NLD is to lead Myanmar to a more liberal and open country.
An historical election is coming up in Myanmar in less than a month, and the pro-democracy NLD party is expected to gain a landslide victory. The opposition party will, for the first time, play a key role both in the government and the parliament, shaping Myanmar’s political and economic transition.
While it would be a popular outcome if the NLD wins a majority, the party faces limitations that could undermine its effectiveness to push forward a reform agenda.
Lack of qualified leaders
In Myanmar, people tend to distinguish between parties based on their leaders, rather than its positions on issues. The population associates Aung San Suu Kyi with the NLD and they look to her leadership to bring further democracy and reforms to the country.
The party leader’s global fame and popularity have played a key role in shaping the NLD the way it is today. However, the party lacks qualified leaders who can rise up through the ranks, which will challenge the coherence of an NLD- government should it come to power.
A lack of leadership has already caused difficulty for the NLD in choosing candidates for the presidency.
In Myanmar presidents are nominated by the military and the Upper and the Lower House and elected by all MPs. For the time being, if the NLD wins the elections and forms a government, Aung San Suu Kyi will lead the country whether she is the president or not.
However, the top-ranking members of the NLD are ageing and the lack of qualified leaders to replace them is something the party will need to deal with in order to ensure sustainability of the party.
A general lack of promising leaders has alarmed the business community as well. Diamond Consultant Group CEO, Thet Aung Min Latt, has said that “the NLD’s biggest problem is that they do not have any potential ministers in their rank” and analysts are worried that an NLD-led government might not be as coherence as the current administration under Thein Sein’s leadership.
Weak connections within the party
The NLD members of the central executive committee, the highest-level decision-making group in the party’s charter, are appointed by the party leader elect.
Some have described this party structure as a private company. “Aung San Suu Kyi is CEO, central executive committee members are appointed executives who are loyal and responsible only to the CEO, and party members are minor shareholders who do not have voting rights,” writes regional expert Aung Din.
This type of organisation weakens the link between low and high-ranking party members since the latter does not need the support of the former to reach the executive body. This issue was highlighted when the party selected candidates for the November elections, which has excluded key members from civil society groups and some nominees from the local NLD committees.
For example, 88 Generation, a key political activist group that played a crucial role in Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic movement, had only one member make it on the ballot, out of the 19 members contested to run for the elections. Some party members have accused the central executive committee of ignoring local recommendations when deciding who to run in the elections.
Dissatisfaction surrounding the party list has led to protests, and some NLD-members have been expelled while others have quit the party.
Other former NLD members have decided to run as independent candidates and have good chances of securing seats. While this is unlikely to challenge NLD’s leading position in the election outcome, this creates further difficulty for the party to pass reforms, especially constitutional reforms that required at least 75 percent support from lawmakers.
Lack of positive engagement with the military
The first reform the NLD will put forward once assuming power is to remove the military’s effective veto in parliament. Regardless of the outcome, the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, the strongest institution in the country, will continue to play a big role in Myanmar’s politics and the NLD will have to work with the military, not only on constitutional reforms but also other issues.
But the party’s relationship with the Tatmadaw has historically been problematic, and it is unclear which NLD members would be able to positively engage with the military.
With an NLD majority in parliament is almost certain, the government under the Aung San Suu Kyi-led party will see more openness and foreign involvement than under the current administration.
However, the ability of the NLD to foster continued leadership within its party will determine how well it is able to carry out reforms, implement its economic policy and ensure the political stability that foreign investors and the business community are hoping for.