Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Capitalizing on a flawed electoral process

by Joseph Ball

(Mizzima) As ripples continue to reverberate from the recently concluded and rare visit of an American official to Burma's administrative center of Naypyitaw, and the announcement by the Obama administration that it is conducting a review of the Burma policy it inherited from its predecessor, it becomes even more imperative for Burma's democratic opposition to contemplate a strategy for the 2010 elections, and beyond.

A lasting, durable democracy demands commitment to democratic norms, a vibrant and well-rooted party system and active public debate and pursuit of competing, though not mutually exclusive, agendas. There should be no illusion, such an environment does not exist in Burma and will not, under any scenario, be in place within 12 months' time.

Presently, the 2010 general elections can only serve one purpose, that of a legitimating action for whatever party comes out on top. The elections themselves are ultimately drastically more significant for a select group of elites inside and outside the country than for the tens of millions of citizenry eligible to vote. Far from anchoring a system of majority rule and symbolizing the existence of a complex political scene epitomized not by absolutes but rather by a myriad of overlapping interests and agendas, an election next year – as currently encapsulated – will simply have one outcome: the labeling, among the elite, of unconditional winners and losers.

To this end, it is self-defeating for the mainstream opposition to conceive of American overtures toward the junta as a conduit through which to reiterate demands of the generals ensconced in Naypyitaw. And further, it should be understood that the U.S., for multiple reasons related to both international and domestic interests, is not positioned to unilaterally and effectively make demands of the junta.

For example, insistence on the part of the opposition and related through an American envoy that the election must be free and fair and results honored is tantamount, or is at least perceived to be by the country's elite, as rubberstamping what the outcome must be beforehand. There is no trust being built and precious little outlook as to how the country might pull itself out of its downward spiral in the critical years following 2010 – merely an assurance that Burma will continue to epitomize national bifurcation.

As much as it may not speak to the ideal endgame of some within the democratic opposition, if the crisis paralyzing the country is to be reoriented in a positive direction, Burma's predicament likely mandates that democratization be conducted gradually and characterized by a spirit of political compromise – by all sides. Such a process is not altogether dissimilar to those initiated by several regional countries in recent decades.

Consideration will need to be given to what hybrid civilian-military forms of bureaucratic administration could be made, in the short term, acceptable to all concerned. Without question, the current proposal birthed from last May's troubled constitutional referendum leaves much room for improvement, and changes to its current form are imminent if a successful compromise is to be found.

Yet, it must also not be forgotten that democracy demands institutionalization, and the Army is a rarity in this regard in today's Burma.

Agreeing in principle to a less than ideal hybrid form of government should not be confused with abdicating from democratic goals and ideals or capitulating to the junta's long aired 'roadmap to democracy' or 'disciplined democracy', it is but an alternative, and potentially less volatile, means of reaching the same destination by accounting for the structural and strategic realities of the country today – an approach that could see the advent of renewed economic development, observance of rights and respect for the rule of law, not to mention the return of U.S.-led engagement and financial interests.

At its crudest, the proposed elections of next year could at least reintroduce multi-party politics to the citizenry of Burma. This is true even, as is likely, only state authorized and sanctioned parties are permitted to participate.

For a population, and corresponding infrastructure and institutions, virtually bereft of electoral experience and familiarity with a democratic process, 2010 can at least serve as the point of inception for a multi-party democratic society, the first vestiges of a fragile political seedling in its growth toward durable maturity.

In such a domestic political environment, opposition parties may still opt to stand outside the electoral process, voicing concerns for the shortcomings of the system at hand and continuing to educate and inform the general population as to the merits and means of a democratic process. However, importantly, the rhetoric of such opposition groups would need to drastically change from its current form – and the standing government would need to accommodate the need for divergent voices within society to have freer access to the dissemination of information inside the country.

If parties do in fact choose to manifest their opposition by remaining outside the formal political process, it will fall to their leaderships' best judgment as to when to reenter the formal political system, a move that will then further strengthen and legitimate an evolving democratic political landscape.

This scenario could provide the U.S., other countries and entities whose relationships vis-à-vis Burma's generals are currently epitomized by an unmistakably aura of hostility, to pursue a spirit of engagement with the Burmese government that transcends the current polarization and allows for constructive, if not necessarily warm, relations to take root. The international community could come to play a significantly larger and more visible role in monitoring political progress inside Burma and ensuring that wrong turns – along what is sure to be a much potholed road – are avoided.

If another opportunity to redress the flawed means of exercising political power in Burma is not to be lost – and the system made at least less imperfect and imbued with a new sense of hope for the future – a principle component of political strategy by the opposition camp for 2010 and beyond must be precisely just that…forward looking and long-term in approach.

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