Presidential rivals gear up for race in Myanmar — Larry Jagan

AUGUST 3 — Myanmar’s elections are only three months away and the battle to become the country’s next President is already in full swing, with the incumbent Thein Sein seeking a second term in office. The two goliaths within the governing party — Thein Sein and the Speaker of the Lower House, Thura Shwe Mann, are the leading contenders.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has been a two-headed dragon, with both of them vying for control of the party and government policy, and the party’s presidential nomination will be a key prize. But the battle for the presidency is far from a two-horse race.

Thein Sein may have stolen a march on his opponent by reversing his earlier decision not to run again for Parliament. He is now contesting in his hometown Pathien, said party sources close to the president.

Although the future president needs the backing of the party, it is the army’s support that will be most decisive: It is the most important institution determining the country’s political future. The military already has 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament assigned to it under the Constitution.

The polls on Nov 8 will elect MPs to the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament — and the regional legislatures — who will then elect the president.

The soldiers select a vice-president, while the Upper House and the Lower House also each nominate a vice-president; then at a joint sitting of Parliament — the national assembly — the MPs vote for the president from the three vice-presidents.

Shwe Mann seemed to gain the upper hand in the fight to become president when the USDP central committee met in June and secretly decided to propose him as the party’s presidential candidate; they kept the decision confidential until after the elections to prevent open warfare within the party. But this seems to have backfired and prompted his enemies to go on the offensive.

The anti-Shwe Mann lobby’s strategy is to chip away at the Speaker’s power base, especially in the party’s executive. The death on July 23 of former party strongman Aung Thaung has left him without his most powerful ally. Another of his group, USDP general secretary Maung Maung Thein, may be on the verge of being charged with corruption; while others may also soon find themselves under fire.

More importantly, the army has begun to move against Shwe Mann. By using a regulation in the election laws — which allows a petition of 1 per cent of the constituency to have their MP recalled — they have asked the Electoral Commission to disqualify Shwe Mann as an MP.

They accuse him of abusing his position as Speaker. His electorate in Naypyidaw is a military stronghold. The commission now has to decide the case and could remove him from Parliament.

Others in contention

Within the USDP, there is a third force emerging — those who feel Thein Sein is indecisive and lacks the moral courage to tackle the country’s problems, especially corruption. But they also fear Shwe Mann becoming president — seeing him and his cabal as the most corrupt in Myanmar. They also hope to nominate their own choice to be the next president.

At present, this faction is relatively amorphous; Khin Aung Myint, the Speaker of the Upper House, is the key leader. Others include the party’s vice-president, Htay Oo — having strongly supported Thein Sein initially — seems to be positioning himself in the centre of the USDP.

Soe Maung, a minister in the President’s Office, is by far the most active of this group — orchestrating a putsch within the USDP, according to reliable sources within the party.

So Khin Aung Myint and Soe Maung must be seen as potential presidential candidates. Both have strong support from the army, especially the second-in-command General Soe Win — who is likely to become the army chief within the next few months — and the former military leader Than Shwe.

Although the current commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has political ambitions, he is yet to announce his retirement, and his attempts to join the USDP have been rebuffed by the party’s chairman, Shwe Mann. At present, according to reliable sources, Min Aung Hlaing plans to run for Parliament in the constituency Shwe Mann currently represents, so he has until Aug 8 — the deadline for the constituency nominations — to decide, but is keeping his options open for as long as possible.

Shwe Mann appears increasingly isolated, as some in the party try to end his presidential ambitions once and for all. The Speaker had also been counting on the support of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in his bid to become president.

But Suu Kyi appears no longer to support him. Last month, she announced that her National League for Democracy (NLD)party had decided to support one of its own members for president, though she refused to reveal who he or she was.

So, the race to be the next president remains wide open. But Suu Kyi and NLD — depending on how many seats they win in the next Parliament — may become the kingmakers. Her public antipathy towards Thein Sein could count him out, leaving the door open for either Khin Aung Myint or Soe Maung to become president — provided they can negotiate with the Lady beforehand. — TODAY

* Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service news editor for the region.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.