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President's post unlikely for popular Suu Kyi

The Straits Times | Nirmal Ghosh | Friday, Aug 22, 2014

Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has worked hard to clear the way for its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to become her country's next president.

It has gathered nearly five million signatures in support of its petition for a change to the Constitution; the charter in its present form bars people with foreign family ties from the top post, and Ms Suu Kyi's late husband and two sons are foreigners.

Last week, the NLD formally asked Parliament to vote to, essentially, remove the army's veto on any change to the charter. It pointed to those signatures as evidence of popular backing for its cause.

But for all its troubles, the NLD is unlikely to succeed.

The writing on the wall is that the 69-year-old Nobel Laureate is unlikely to ever be president of Myanmar.

There are many reasons, the first of which is the maths involved. A quarter of Parliament's 664 seats are reserved for the military.

The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has another 336.

The army can easily combine its 166 votes with the USDP's to block any move to amend Article 436 - which states that constitutional amendments have to be approved by more than three-quarters of sitting Members of Parliament (MPs).

In effect, Article 436 gives the army veto powers over any changes to the Constitution, including to the clause that bars Ms Suu Kyi from the presidency even if the NLD wins next year's elections.

The NLD, which boycotted the 2010 elections which brought the USDP to power in the quasi-civilian government, has just 43 seats won in the 2012 by-elections.

"They (the army) want a disciplined democracy,'' a Yangon-based diplomat said of the military-backed government.

"That means open gradually, don't get too ambitious... The regime wants to play safe. They will allow minor change but for the next five to 10 years, you won't see any major changes.''

There is no doubt that Ms Suu Kyi is popular, and her personal charisma is likely to carry her party to a win in the next general election late next year.

But some analysts say the NLD may not get a landslide victory, and Ms Suu Kyi may have to bargain with either the USDP or the army to form a government.

The best outcome for the country, said one analyst who is close to the government, would be an alliance of the NLD with the army.

But he also warned that "the USDP is not that hopeless''.

Indeed, the government received high approval ratings in a poll of 3,000 voters across Myanmar from last December to February this year, conducted by the US-based International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy organisation run by Senator John McCain.

The USDP-led government scored well in practical categories like administration, while the NLD did well in terms of aspirational values like democracy and rights.

President Thein Sein even beat Ms Suu Kyi narrowly in the personal popularity stakes.

While he has reportedly indicated that he would not offer himself again, that could change. Sources say there may be pressure on him to agree to a second term.

Myanmar politics is notoriously at once Machiavellian and mercurial, and Ms Suu Kyi is not without strong rivals in her bid for the presidency.

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