Picking the wrong battle

On April 23, 43 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are supposed to take up their seats in Burma's national parliament. But before they can do that, they have to swear an oath. Now NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has started a fight over its wording.

The MP-elects have refused to take the pledge because it requires them to state that they will "uphold and abide by the Constitution of the Union." The constitution in question is the one that was adopted in 2008 as the result of a process orchestrated by the then-ruling military junta and denounced by most outside observers as illegitimate. During the recent election all the NLD candidates campaigned on a promise to amend this constitution. In a recent meeting with President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi asked that the text of the oath be changed from the present version to one that stipulates only "respect" for the constitution.

The present standoff was preceded by a lot of complicated maneuvering that probably isn't worth going into. Suffice it to say that it will be almost impossible for the NLD leader to get her way unless the government amends the constitution itself accordingly. While some sources suggest that Thein Sein might be willing to concede the point, it will be very hard for him to do so without causing considerable discontent among other members of the ruling elite.

While the NLD has threatened to boycott parliament if its demand isn't met, Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to avoid saying this all too directly. "We won't say we are not attending parliament," she told Radio Free Asia in an interview on Thursday. "We will attend after the oath [is amended]."

This is an unfortunate strategic blunder for the leader of the NLD. She has put herself in an unnecessary dilemma. First of all, the point at hand is largely symbolic. Semantic issues in politics are usually about saving face. Vowing to "uphold and abide" the constitution does not mean that the opposition can't try to amend it later. A quick look at the texts of other countries' oaths of office shows that words like "uphold" and even "defend" are commonly used, but such language has never prevented anyone from proposing constitutional amendments.

Second, the timing is bad. When she reached her pre-election deal with the regime to change the Party Registration Law so that the NLD could run, Aung San Suu Kyi should have known that the language of the oath appears not only in the Party Registration Law but also in the constitution. If she wanted to make an issue of it, she could have done so then. Now she should just ignore it for the sake of establishing normal working relations with the incumbent legislature and the government.

Third, Suu Kyi has picked the wrong person as her interlocutor. She is relying too heavily on the president and the executive branch. Amending the constitution is a job that should be carried out by parliamentarians. While there is a clear institutional and personal rivalry between the executive and legislature branches, Suu Kyi's personal approach to the president could backfire. Rather ominously, a high-ranking officer has now seen fit to state that the army is determined to protect the constitution (and, along with it, the military's dominance in politics). In an interview last month, Htay Oo, the leader of the military-aligned party that holds the overwhelming majority of the seats in parliament, told FP that he sees no need for an amendment. Given the enormous humiliation inflicted on Htay Oo's party by the NLD in the election just past, Aung San Suu Kyi's insistence on a semantic issue will be viewed in some quarters as rubbing salt into the losers' wound.

In short, while fulfilling the NLD's demand might make many members of the opposition feel better about their implicit cooperation with government institutions, hardliners within the military and the regime are likely to gain powerful ammunition in their fight against Thein Sein. If the president and his fellow reformers compromise on this issue, they expose themselves to the accusation that they are giving too much away to Aung San Suu Kyi and the West.

Perhaps the dispute can be resolved with some sort of trade-off. Otherwise the cost of further escalation and eventual deadlock will almost certainly prove high both for pro-reform officials and the opposition. By participating in the election Aung San Suu Kyi chose to play by the regime's rules; now she needs to pick her battles rather than wasting valuable energy in a fight over symbolism. There's an old Burmese proverb: "If you choose to live like a bug inside a chili pepper, you can't really complain if you start feeling hot."

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

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The politics of beauty

The Hugo Chávez government has always seized opportunities to insert itself into the economy in ways that will bring political payoffs. The bureaucrats in Caracas have been known to subsidize gasoline, sell dollars to Venezuelans traveling abroad at below-market rates, or give away washing machines to poor voters. (See, for example, this video, in which Chávez himself is offering appliances to buyers at 40 percent off the market price:)

Late last year the national assembly passed a measure called the "Law of Fair Costs and Prices." The new statute forces private businesses to provide detailed cost information that will allow the government to set all the prices in the country.

This is, essentially, price regulation on steroids. It goes without saying that the few private businesses left in the country shuddered when the law came to pass. But the main target of this new bureaucracy so far has been a curious one.

In late February, SUNDECOP (the unfortunate acronym of the new Fair Prices Superintendency) announced that it was applying its broad powers to regulate the prices of, among other things, deodorant, hair conditioner, shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. A recent report by the Caracas daily El Universal found that the shelves remain stocked up with the products in spite of the regulation, but that the quality and variety of brands has decreased substantially. Premium toilet paper, for instance, is expected to slowly disappear from the shelves.

The move was met with a mixture of relief and derision. Why, some asked, would the government go to such great lengths to regulate the price of...  beauty care products?

The reason is simple: Venezuelans are obsessed with beauty and personal care. Anything that feeds into that part of their culture is bound to reap political benefits.

How important are beauty and personal care to Venezuelans? This is a nation with the highest ratio of beauty queens per capita, but other statistics are even more telling.

A survey conducted a few years ago by Roper Starch, a consulting company, found that Venezuelans were the vainest of all the countries studied. A full 65 percent of women and 47 percent of men owned up to worrying about their looks "all of the time."

It shows. Venezuelans spend an average of $115 per year on cosmetics and toiletries on a per capita basis, according to Euromonitor, a consultancy. The Venezuelan figure is higher than those for Mexico ($74), Argentina ($78), Colombia ($56), and Chile ($90). Only Brazilians, at $149, spend more in the region.

Venezuelans are also regional leaders in plastic surgery. According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Venezuelans rank eighth in the world in terms of per capita aesthetic surgical procedures. They have about the same number of per capita aesthetic surgical procedures as Americans, even though Venezuela is, of course, much smaller and poorer than the U.S.

There is, of course, a dark side to this obsession. Last August, for example, Rosa Pérez, a 40-year old janitor and grandmother from a poor slum in Caracas, died from complications following a botched breast augmentation procedure done in a makeshift clinic. Two months later, Elizabeth Veloz, a slim 23-year old business major from Maracaibo, died from complications during a combined breast, buttock, and liposuction surgical procedure. Most of the victims of these apparent malpractice cases are poor working women.

This obsession with beauty is undoubtedly behind SUNDECOP's moves. Price controls can yield political benefits in the short run, even if the distortions they create hurt production. Initial results apparently show inflation in the targeted products slowing down, while demand appears to be picking up.

Obviously, the effects of these distortions will be felt at some point, and scarcity is bound to rear its head. Venezuela's soaring inflation and intermittent shortages of goods are a major  political problem for the administration. For the moment, though, the prices and supplies of these particular products remain stable. If the government can pull off its latest attempt at regulation without emptying the shelves, it could a big boost for a president who has an election just around the corner. In this respect, a bit of economic populism that plays up to what voters like may be just what the doctor ordered -- at least if you're a Chavista.