If we boycott the elections we abandon the fight

Monday, 22 March 2010 13:01 Dr. Tun Kyaw Nyein

(Mizzima) – The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), like any dictatorship, desires legitimacy. And like any modern state, tries to conform to standards of the international system, which characteristically entail elections and civilian rule. Thus, with the announcement of elections slated to take place in 2010, the SPDC wants to transform the Burmese military dictatorship into a semblance of civilian rule.

However, though promoted as a move towards “disciplined, flourishing democracy” there is no doubt that the projected change is but a military dictatorship morphing itself into electoral authoritarianism.

What is electoral authoritarianism?

It means that the military dictatorship in Burma will be transformed into authoritarian rule dressed up in all the trappings of democracy such as a constitution, multiparty elections, courts, national and sub-national legislative bodies, private media and civil organizations. Those who wield power have made sure that all the advantages are on their side, with 25 percent of the seats in legislative bodies, key ministries conveniently reserved for the military and the executive branch endowed with omnipotent power.

Burmese are under no illusion that these institutions are far from freedom and liberal democracy. Yet, for the democratic opposition, these institutions are venues and arenas to contest, and contest they must.

The opposition cannot afford to forfeit any emerging political space

Some consider the boycott an act of defiance and accuse those in the democratic movement who intend to participate in the elections as dreamers. Quite to the contrary, reality dictates that elections are the most viable option at this point in time and that the opposition cannot afford to forfeit the polling. Democracy has to be fought for at every given opportunity and in every space that becomes available. If the democratic opposition boycotts the elections it will by default surrender the opportunity and space to non-democratic forces.

The military regime holds elections out of a position of strength

Since 1962, we have heard the calls for armed struggle or popular uprisings. Burmese people have taken to the streets and taken up arms, sacrificing their lives time and again. Yet, the military dictatorship has continued to hold sway over the country for nearly half a century.

Twenty-two years after the 1988 uprising, the SPDC stands in a much stronger position than ever before. It has survived sanctions imposed by the West and has improved its revenue stream thanks to the exploitation of the country’s natural resources. Internationally, it remains comfortably ensconced behind the veto shields of Russia and China, effectively warding off any punitive measures brought against it in the UN Security Council. Domestically, they have dampened the will of people to take to the streets – at least for a while, with their brutal crackdown of the monks’ uprising in 2007. With the recent announcement of the party registration law, Burma’s major opposition party, the NLD, seems cornered while ceasefire groups, though armed, pose no existential threat. Thus, the SPDC does not hold the elections from a position of weakness but from a position of strength – thereby tone deaf to any demands voiced by the opposition.

Democracy has to be fought for at every given opportunity

The main political battleground will be in the elections for the legislature, because that is where the Burmese people have an opportunity to capture as many as 75 percent of the seats. The democratic opposition must fight for every seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House), Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House), Taing Hluttaw (Region) and Pyi ne Hluttaw (State). The opposition must carry the fight for democracy and human rights in the national and regional bodies, in the courts, in the media and in the civil organizations. But foremost, it will have to take part in the elections. Each seat an opposition party candidate captures is a seat that will push the cause of democracy one yard farther towards its goal. As the Burmese saying goes, ‘if we move one yard a day, where will Pagan run?’

Redirecting electoral authoritarianism

Electoral experiences from Iran to Zimbabwe show that when an opposition movement participates and protests against irregularities or fraud, a regime’s legitimacy becomes challenged in the international community. Moreover, opposition unity and cohesion can be crucial in altering electoral authoritarianism onto the path of liberalization.

Elections even when flawed can have positive outcomes. Studies have shown that they provide increased room to maneuver for political actors, and in the case of Latin American countries to the extent that political space opened up via elections empowered people to mobilize and pursue their interests; over a few election cycles, initial mistrust diminished among the main political actors. Furthermore, in the cases of highly manipulated presidential elections in Cote d’Ivoire (2000) and Madagascar (2001) and parliamentary elections in Malawi (1999) and Namibia (1989), the opposition won despite serious irregularities and manipulation. In all those cases, where opposition won against all odds, they were united and cohesive. At the same time, in other cases, positive outcomes emerged following second or third election cycles when the old generation of rulers exits the scene and new arrangements are negotiated between younger generations of political actors.

Will it be a quick and easy fight? No.

Will victory be assured? No. Those who want genuine democracy have a long and hard road ahead of them.

As mentioned earlier, elections are convened by authoritarian regimes to gain a measure of legitimacy. And there should be no doubt that the people in power will employ a full menu of manipulative means to achieve their goals, as have other authoritarian systems.

However, the voting patterns of the Burmese people in both the 1960 and 1990 elections indicate, when given a choice, they will vote for their real preference notwithstanding electoral manipulations. It is a responsibility of the democratic opposition to do all they can to deny the military a manufactured popular consent and to give the Burmese people the power to choose and to deny.

All things considered, defection from the elections will by default deliver the military their long coveted legitimacy on a platter.

(Dr. Tun Kyaw Nyein is a political activist who took part in the 1974 U Thant uprising in Burma. He is a former political prisoner and now living in the United States. Currently, he serves as Dean of the Center for Adult and Continuing Education at Misericordia University, Pennsylvania.)

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