The curious relationship between Burma's president and his not-quite-ruling party

Burma's pseudo-civilian president, Thein Sein, held his first press conference for local media on Sunday, after he was re-elected last week as the chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP took about 80 percent of the seats in the 2010 elections that critics have condemned as a farce.

Thein Sein avoided breaking any news, and gave broadly worded answers about the ongoing war in Kachin State, the highly anticipated foreign investment law, the possibility of U.S.-Burma military relations, and so forth. One of the answers that struck me, however, touched upon his relationship with the USDP. He was asked if he will urge his party's parliamentarians to amend the country's constitution. Thein Sein responded: "As the constitution prohibits the president from taking part in [their] party's activities during his term of office, I can't go and urge them what to do. The constitutional amendment issue depends not only on the parliamentarians of the USDP but also on other parties."

Essentially he dodged the question, but his answer has interesting political implications. Let me highlight three issues that I think are important.

First, viewed according to the 2008 Constitution, the unanimous re-election of Thein Sein as a chairman of the USDP on October 16 was unconstitutional. The director of the president's office defended the re-election of his boss as the head of the USDP as "in line with the constitution," so long as Thein Sein is "not involved in the party function." But this is a pretty lame defense. How can anyone possibly say that the president attending the USDP's annual conference was not also participating in the party's activities? Thein Sein was there greeting hundreds of delegates and giving speeches. He didn't just stop by and say hi to folks on his way home from the neighborhood gym.

Second, Thein Sein's answer at the press conference revised the much-hyped PR message that he was putting across during his recent interview with BBC's Hardtalk. Thein Sein said that he "would accept" Aung San Suu Kyi as president if the people accept her. But the constitution bars Suu Kyi from seeking the presidential nomination, since the candidate can neither be a foreign citizen nor have parents, legitimate children, or a spouse who hold foreign citizenship. Suu Kyi was married to a British academic and has two sons who hold British citizenship.

In his Hardtalk interview, however, Thein Sein implied that he would not mind seeing her as president. There is no doubt that the interview has triggered waves of hope (most likely false hope) among the observers and general public in Burma. Even Suu Kyi weighed in to respond to Thein Sein's remark. In a press conference, she declared that she is willing to lead the country as president and that her party will work to amend the constitution that blocks her from the position. Amending any of these provisions, however, requires the approval of more than 75 percent of parliament as well as a national referendum. Since the military has 25 percent of seats reserved in parliament, there is no way for to Suu Kyi to change the conditions without military approval even if her party won the available 75 percent of seats in the upcoming 2015 election. Currently her party only represents less than 7 percent in parliament. Thus, Suu Kyi seemed to be expecting the president to use his influence to make the necessary constitutional changes. But now, in his answer to a local journalist's question, Thein Sein has changed his previous message, refused to take any initiative, and passed the buck back to "the people."

The third significant implication of Thein Sein's reference to constitutional provisions disassociating him from his party is that it explains why Thein Sein has managed to pursue the ongoing liberalizing reforms. Those who are elected president or are given cabinet positions are not officially accountable to the USDP. They don't have to feel direct constraints imposed by the USDP. They don't need to follow the USDP agenda. They are not implementing the USDP's party policy.

This is significant because the USDP is much more conservative than President Thein Sein and his team. The USDP, correctly foreseeing that the Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party would do well in the 2012 by-elections, had opposed holding them. It also pushed to amend the constitution to allow executive officials, most of whom were USDP members, to retain their party affiliation. But the president managed to kill such initiatives because he wanted to hold by-elections as a proof of his reforms to attract the West.

Aung Thein Linn, one of the top former USDP leaders and chairman of the party's Rangoon Division, told Chinese media that some of the president's critical decisions were nothing more than "his own idea, not a resolution by the parliament." He continued to say that the party opposes the president's decision. "He (Thein Sein) trie[d] to sever the ties between China and Myanmar [Burma]," said Aung Thein Linn. Aung Thein Linn was later forced to resign for making comments against in Thein Sein and Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

In this regard, the USDP is a party that won the 2010 election, but not a ruling-party. While that makes Thein Sein rely mostly on technocrats for his policy initiatives, the same detachment frustrates those who are in the line-up for 2015 election. The institutional set-up of the constitution allows Thein Sein to be able pursue a "reform agenda" without party constraints.    


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The Venezuelan brand of democracy

Venezuela has just gone through a long and exhausting presidential campaign. There were massive rallies, ads of all kinds, interesting last-minute developments, and turnout on election day was heavy. The incumbent president won comfortably, and the challenger gracefully accepted defeat. The winner even called the loser on the phone.

The story of this election is also one of a government overwhelming the voters with cash, giveaways, and propaganda. In order to create an illusion of prosperity, the government dramatically increased public spending ahead of the election, which means the fiscal deficit will reach 15 percent of GDP this year. There was widespread evidence that public employees and beneficiaries of social programs were pressured to vote for the president. Hugo Chávez blitzed the media, an unfair advantage that electoral authorities refused to acknowledge, much less do anything about. Meanwhile, many took the fact that voting machines were fingerprint-activated as reason to believe (mistakenly) that the secrecy of the vote was being compromised.

The Venezuelan election story is one of light and shadows -- a mixture of positive things and many other ones that appear to be out of a place in a democratic country. This begs the question: is Venezuela a democracy?

The short answer is yes. Venezuela is a severely dysfunctional, unbelievably corrupt, impossibly dangerous, highly manipulated democracy... but a democracy nonetheless.

One thing we can conclude from the opposition's rapid acknowledgement of the official results is that the votes tallied reflect what the majority wanted. There is no evidence that a significant number of people were somehow pressured into voting for Chávez when, in reality, they wanted to vote for Capriles. The results as tallied reflected the will of the majority.

Sometimes democratically elected leaders lose their way, and one can then make the case that voters did not endorse the policies their leaders ended up pursuing. Yet in the case of Venezuela, voters knew exactly what they were getting with Hugo Chávez. The support of the majority is an endorsement of his highly chaotic, increasingly autocratic form of government.

My friends who believe Venezuela can no longer be considered a democracy make their case as follows.

One of them is the issue of political prisoners. Estimates of the number of political prisoners vary, but that such prisoners exist is undeniable. In spite of this, it is worth remembering that even democratic nations have political prisoners.

Chile, one of the continent's most well-regarded democracies, has people in jail that some consider political prisoners. The United States created concentration camps for Japanese immigrants in the 1940s, but this did not mean the U.S. ceased to be a democracy at that moment. During its war with Irish Nationalists, the UK put in prison innocent people, such as the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, yet we don't view these sad episodes as an indictment on British democracy as a whole.

Critics also point to the absence of separation of powers in Chávez's Venezuela. This situation is a consequence of the president's dismantling of existing institutions in 1999 (thanks to a popular mandate to do exactly that) as well as winning elections nonstop since then. But that is where the case thins out.

If, say, the Democrats were to win the White House for the next sixteen years, American institutions would undoubtedly be shaped in the mold of the Democratic Party, yet few could make the case that the U.S. was not a democracy.

Critics also point out the enormous pressure voters felt during this election. When people feel compelled to vote for the government in order to get a washing machine, the argument goes, this means they are not free to choose.

This, however, has always been a problem in Venezuela, a petro-state with few institutional constraints on its leaders. The era prior to Hugo Chávez's ascension -- one most opposition-minded Venezuelans consider democratic -- had very similar problems.

These shortcomings have existed in democracies in one way or another, but rarely in such a heightened and distorted way. The system currently ruling Venezuela is highly unfair, and is based on intolerable levels of corruption and violence. The accountability of public officials outside of elections is virtually nonexistent, and fundamental rights such as the right to life, the right to privacy, freedom of expression, or the right to private property are hanging by a thread.

And yet such rights do exist in some form or another.

The Venezuelan way is one where the majority imposes its will on the minority, where minority rights are trampled upon daily, and where the members of the minority are barely even recognized as citizens of their own country.

We may find all this distasteful, but it's what the majority wants. At the end of the day, isn't that what the core of democracy is? Chávez's Venezuela maintains the bare minimum, the very basic trappings of democracy, but that is enough to qualify it as such.