As the second anniversary of the National League for Democracy’s time in power approaches in late March, thoughts are starting to turn toward a general election expected to take place in 2020.
At the previous poll, in 2015, the NLD earned a resounding victory, winning more than three quarters of the available seats. The victory was in large part due to the overwhelming popularity of its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, coupled with a populace keen to remove from power a military that had ruled the country for several decades.
But slow progress on campaign promises, a sluggish economy and the emergence of new political parties has raised questions about whether the party can repeat the overwhelming success of 2015.
“I think the [NLD] is struggling on all levels,” a Western diplomat told VOA on the condition of anonymity so they could speak freely. “A lot of individual ministers are still very much struggling; not just because of their own capacity issues, but because … they still have the same bureaucracy to deal with as before.”
“There is no coordinating policy, and thinking ahead about they want to achieve. They are just operational, and not strategic at this point, and that’s not going away any time soon,” said the diplomat.
Before the 2015 vote, the NLD campaigned largely on making changes to the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which guarantees the army a role in politics through a quarter of all parliamentary seats and control of three key ministries, namely home affairs, defense and border affairs.
Amid a precarious relationship with the military, the NLD has largely remained silent on the topic since coming to power. A rare comment on the issue came from President Htin Kyaw on the 70th anniversary of Independence Day in early January, when he called on the country’s citizens to work together to create a “suitable constitution.”
A major setback to charter changes was the killing of prominent lawyer Ko Ni at Yangon International Airport in January last year. Former members of the military are among those currently on trial, charged with plotting the murder. Regarded as an expert on the constitution, Ko Ni was credited as being the brains behind creating the State Counselor role that Aung San Suu Kyi now holds, a clever workaround of the clause in the constitution that prevents her from becoming president because her late husband and sons are British.
Minimal progress on the country’s peace process is also likely to heavily impact the NLD’s popularity at the polls, especially in ethnic minority areas, said political analyst Sai Wansai.
“Last time [the ethnic groups] put a lot of faith in Aung San Suu Kyi because they thought the 2008 constitution would be amended or re-written,” said Sai Wansai. “[The NLD] was effectively given a blank check.”
Khon Ja, coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, told VOA some basic infrastructure had improved in Kachin State since the NLD took office, but that there had been a step backwards regarding progress on the peace process and relations with civil society.
“In the past, our challenge was the military, but there were a lot of loopholes that helped us [get things done],” she said. “However, many NLD MPs and people in government and our former friends who do not help us most of the time.”
She added that the NLD had been “unsupportive” regarding the return and resettlement of those displaced by civil war, but that unless ethnic minority political parties could form a strong unit, then people living in those areas would still vote for the NLD, because they do not want a return to military rule.
The diplomat agreed that ethnic minority parties would need to form a cohesive unit to capitalize on the disappointment with the NLD administration.
“[Aung San Suu Kyi] has essentially lost the ethnic vote. The [ethnic minorities] really thought that now they have a civilian government, one that fought for generations to get rid of the Tatmadaw, that they would have an ally. But they have very quickly realized that it was the opposite of that,” the diplomat said.
Another factor that is likely to impact the result in 2020 is the emergence of a new political party headed by prominent political activists.
In December, leading members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society announced they were registering a new political party, the Four Eights Party, with the country’s election commission. The party is likely to be headed by Ko Ko Gyi, a key student leader in the 1988 anti-government uprising.
“[In 2020], the NLD will have more competition. One, they will not get the tactical vote from the ethnic states, and then you have this Ko Ko Gyi party, which could split the vote,” Sai Wansai said.
There have been significant changes in regional ministerial positions in recent weeks, with at least four NLD-linked ministers standing down from their role since the start of January. But, Sai Wansai said, the party had not been transparent about the changes.
Senior members of the NLD refused to comment for this story when contacted by VOA.