Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy never fail to surprise the pundits. When the NLD (whose symbol is shown in the photo above) won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in the April 1 by-elections, the result caught most observers off guard. Most of them had expected the party to fall short of overwhelming victory. As I noted in my previous post, this victory demonstrated that people of Burma were prepared to practice "sincere voting" in the by-elections, defying various forms of government pressure to vote for the woman many of them call "Mother."
What happens next is much harder to predict. The NLD and its parliamentary group now face the challenge of actually trying to effect change in a system defined by the authoritarian constitution of 2008. The constitution guarantees the military political supremacy and ensures the domination of parliament by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military's proxy party, by giving it 80 percent of the seats. In short, the recent "flickers of progress" in Burma have not substantially contributed to solving the country's two most intractable political problems: the lack of democratic governance and the failure to provide autonomy for its many ethnic minorities.
But this doesn't mean that the recent changes ushered in by President Thein Sein, a former army general who is also the leader of USDP, are insignificant. Burma now finds itself at a crossroads, confronting a fundamental choice between democracy and a new version of authoritarianism. While the euphoric headlines suggest that the country is heading down the former path, the current institutional arrangement actually points toward the latter one.
In his inauguration speech on March 31, 2011, Thein Sein urged all parties to "work together in the national interest" rather than engaging in opposition to the government. The leaders of parliament also discourage members of the smaller parties represented in the body from using the word "opposition" in parliamentary debates. Meanwhile, local media tend to use the phrase "national interest" quite broadly without really explaining what they mean by it.
So how will Aung San Suu Kyi deal with this rather daunting situation? She appears to have adopted a dual-track strategy, one that places equal emphasis on participation and contestation. The first part of this approach, to be pursued by the NLD members in parliament, focuses on working within the existing legislature, bureaucracy, and judiciary, despite their obvious democratic deficits. The idea here is that you won't be able to effect constructive change in these institutions without building their capacity to implement policy, and you can only do that by giving them incentives to behave as if they were in a real democracy. This strategy operates under the assumption that the present transitional stage is very fragile, and that an all-too-adversarial approach could provoke undesirable side effects. If the opposition pushes too hard for far-reaching change (such as amending the 2008 constitution or establishing a genuine federalist system), it could prompt hardliners within the military and the USDP to bring the reforms to a screeching halt.
This does not mean that Aung San Suu Kyi and her entourage will have to subordinate themselves completely to the current corrupt system. Even as the NLD parliamentary delegation works within the tight constraints of the non-democratic parliament, the party can still use its presence in civil society and the media to challenge the poor governance of the regime. To name but one example, they could confront the endemic corruption of the regime as a way of supporting the true rule of law.
If the NLD manages to strike this delicate balance between participation and contestation, it could succeed in gradually steering Burma away from Thein Sein's updated version of authoritarianism (what he calls "disciplined democracy") toward genuine democratization.
The international community can also play a positive role in Burma by encouraging the regime's reformists with selective incentives for any steps toward democratization. If the balance of power within the regime tips in favor of the moderates, that bodes well for progress toward democracy.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.