Unpopular but defiant, Myanmar ruling party unfazed about poll prospects

Unpopular but defiant, Myanmar ruling party unfazed about poll prospects
Senior Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) adviser Aung Thaung (3rd from left) speaks during an interview at the party's office in Naypyitaw May 14, 2015.

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar - Myanmar's ruling party is led by former members of a military junta, evolved from an organisation that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi once compared to a Nazi militia, and took office through electoral fraud.

This dubious history doesn't seem to faze the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), as it prepares for an historic election likely to be held in November.

Nor does the popularity of its bitter rival, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which is expected to thump the USDP at the polls.

Scores of smaller parties will also compete in what could be the former Burma's first free and fair general election in 25 years and a milestone in the Southeast Asian nation's unfinished journey from dictatorship to democracy.

"I have a strong belief the USDP will win the election," senior party adviser Aung Thaung told Reuters in a rare interview at the USDP's monumental headquarters in the capital, Naypyitaw.

That's wishful thinking when you consider the USDP's record.

Myanmar was still ruled by a military junta when the last general election was held in 2010. The NLD boycotted it, leaving the military-backed USDP to win by a landslide - aided by what the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank called "massive manipulation of the count".

That election installed the semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein, a former general and USDP chairman, who launched a series of political and economic reforms.

Many people in Myanmar now feel those reforms have stalled, and see the upcoming election as an opportunity to vote against the USDP and the unpopular military elite it represents.

Factor in Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi's rock-star appeal and Myanmar's first-past-the-post voting system, and the USDP could suffer a "rout", predicts the International Crisis Group.

"GANG OF THUGS"

But don't write off the party yet, say other analysts.

The USDP has the incumbent's advantage, with hundreds of legislators and cosy ties with Myanmar's government and bureaucracy. It is also wealthy and well-organised, with a nationwide network of offices and paid staff.

This formidable structure was set up with state funds under the military that ruled Myanmar for nearly half a century.

The party began life in 1993 as the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass movement notorious for its anti-democratic activities. Senior General Than Shwe, then Myanmar's dictator, was its patron.

In 1997, Suu Kyi called the USDA "a gang of thugs" and said its efforts to crush the NLD and other democrats "resemble those of the Nazi Brownshirts". Six years later, a USDA-linked mob attacked her motorcade in northern Myanmar, killing at least four supporters.

In 2010, with the election approaching, the USDA morphed into the USDP. The party is no longer state-funded, but much else remains unchanged, including its motto: "Morale, Discipline, Solidarity, Unity".

Than Shwe, now in retirement, is still a patron, and the party's leaders are mostly former generals and junta stalwarts. And while many people fear or despise Myanmar's powerful military, a USDP manifesto calls it "a great patriotic nation-loving force".

Senior adviser Aung Thaung, himself an ex-colonel, embodies his party's shady past. In October the US Treasury placed sanctions on him for "actively attempting to undermine recent economic and political reforms" and "perpetuating violence, oppression, and corruption".

Aung Thaung denied these accusations, but seemed to regard the US censure as a badge of honour. "I became famous because of these sanctions," he said, smiling.

RURAL SUPPORT

In November, at least 75 parties will battle for 498 seats in Myanmar's upper and lower houses. The remaining 166 seats are reserved for unelected military delegates.

Aung Thaung's confidence in his party's chances isn't entirely misplaced.

In a survey of Myanmar public opinion last year by the International Republican Institute, the USDP scored lower than the NLD on the issue of supporting democratic reforms, but higher on the economy and national security.

Renaud Egreteau, a political scientist who is researching Myanmar's parliamentary affairs, said the USDP will win millions of votes in rural areas because it is often seen as best-placed to meet local needs - for example, building a new road or renovating a monastery.

"In Myanmar, as in many other Southeast Asian societies, politics is local - and very personal," said Egreteau.

The USDP has also drawn lessons from recent elections in other countries, said Aung Thaung. He compared his party's message to that of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who won re-election on May 7.

"We have the same belief in making greater countries, in national unity," he said.

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