Myanmar: The President and the Proxy
Myanmar’s people have decided they want change. The reds, the National League for Democracy, have repudiated the greens, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in a historic election that was largely peaceful. The USDP leadership, custodians of Myanmar’s political transformation since the introduction of a quasi-civilian government and new constitution in 2008, have publicly conceded defeat.
The government and the military have also declared their acceptance of the election results. Thus at a glance, it looks like a smooth transition for Myanmar and high hopes for democratic change under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. The problem is, it is not that simple. The main complication is that, despite leading her party to what looks like a resounding victory, Aung San Suu Kyi is not going to be the next president of Myanmar. She is constitutionally barred from the office because of her two sons, who are not Myanmar citizens.
Last week she publicly declared that the next president of Myanmar would be an NLD member and she would be “over the president: to direct him or her, should her party win the election and be able to form government. Since then there has been some speculation about whom she might pick as her ‘notional president’ and exactly what this arrangement may entail. So who will be the new president of Myanmar? And in what way can Aung San Suu Kyi influence a role that is constitutionally prohibited from being influenced? Most importantly, will the country’s military obey this new president?
These are puzzles for the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi to solve as Myanmar enters its post-election phase. But with the above questions in mind, we can already sketch out some likely scenarios and key challenges. For Aung San Suu Kyi to get her way, the optimal choice would be a NLD member in his late 50s or 60s with a legislative background.
Myanmar’s constitution says the president has to be over 45 and acquainted with politics, the administration, economics and the military. Though it is not necessarily expected, based on the fact that only 13 per cent of election candidates were women, the new president will also most likely be male.
And while Aung San Suu Kyi may be thinking of a younger president in order to exert maximum influence, she may opt for someone older, in order to appeal to the Myanmar people and their innate respect for their elders. Clearly then, a man in his late 50s or 60s would be a strong possibility.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s vision of a presidential proxy can also be fulfilled if she appoints an NLD member who comes from a bureaucratic background or is a member of the current legislature (which maintains power until March 2016). Such a person would be ideal because the military would have worked with him for the past three years and he would know how the system operates. Her international experience may also persuade her to choose someone who is internationally competent. This reduces the possible candidate to a just handful of people.
There are two key challenges to all of this; one internal and the other external.
The external challenge is the need to secure the support of the military, in particular the 11-member National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) that overseas day-to-day political and security affairs. Six panel members are linked to the military, giving it a lot of muscle. These include the vice-president (elected by the military), the military’s Commander-in-Chief, the deputy Commander-in-Chief and three Union Ministers appointed by the Commander-in-Chief and who are active military personnel.
Stiff resistance from the military through the NDSC is expected should the NLD appoint the wrong person. However, this challenge can be overcome by co-opting the military and by forming an inclusive government – something Aung San Suu Kyi has already hinted at. The greater challenge comes from within her own party, and in particular the question of how Aung San Suu Kyi is going to influence the new president over their whole five year term. Will she micro-manage the president or allow a certain degree of independence?
There are two recent examples of a similar situation: India and Indonesia. Some experts are predicting that Aung San Suu Kyi will take the role of Sonia Gandhi in India, who as a party chairperson effectively ran the government while also maintaining good relations with the prime minister.
On the other hand Aung San Suu Kyi would not want to sour her relationship with her president, as is the case between President Joko Widodo and his party chief Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia. Can she do it? It could come down to the individual she chooses. When people obtain power, they change, and so does their loyalties.
Institutionally, the situation is more complex than it looks. Her presence in the legislature will enhance the legislative role in Myanmar’s democratic consolidation. But, her mentor role over the president will undermine constitutional checks and balances, particularly if Aung San Suu Kyi assumes the role of the speaker of the legislature, as some have predicted she will.
The Constitutional Tribunal may also interfere with her role, and the military may not like it full stop. If she takes an executive post, then she will have to relinquish the party leadership. And with Aung San Suu Kyi as a de facto leader of the country, the new president would be in an awkward position, especially in the international arena.
It’s complicated, to say the least. With a major victory in her sights, it’s imperative that Aung San Suu Kyi finds an institutionally acceptable way to overcome these potential pitfalls. Legislative oversight provides a possible solution to her predicament.
With an overwhelming majority in the legislature, it is likely that the NLD’s proposed laws will go through parliament unopposed. Therefore, one possible solution is to make the executive more accountable to the legislature and let the president freely take charge of government.
There are a number of legislative tools for executive oversight and they can effectively control the government. Myanmar’s current legislature is very much familiar with this arrangement; the new legislature will just need to fine tune it.
Rather than overseeing the president and their day-to-day business, Aung San Suu Kyi should control the executive through the legislature, setting an example of how the executive can be tamed by the people’s representatives. As someone who has finally tamed Myanmar’s military masters, it should be a cinch.
Chit Win is a PhD student at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and currently a visiting scholar at Indiana University. This article forms part of New Mandala’s ‘Myanmar and the vote‘ series