Monday, July 24, 2017

‘Hometown hero’ pitch fails for USDP

The man once tipped by a leaked US cable as “Burma’s dictator in waiting” may be seeing his presidential chances once again elusively slip through his fingers.

Thura U Shwe Mann casts his vote in Pyu, Bago Region, on November 8. (Aung Khant/The Myanmar Times)Thura U Shwe Mann casts his vote in Pyu, Bago Region, on November 8. (Aung Khant/The Myanmar Times)

Yesterday morning, before many were awake and ballot counting was still far from complete, Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann dipped out of the race, acknowledging in a message on Facebook that his National League for Democracy rival had already won the seat.

“Congratulations to U Than Nyunt, for winning this 2015 general election in Pyu township constituency as a Pyithu Hluttaw candidate for the National League for Democracy,” said the Speaker’s post.

His early morning concession set the tone for a day of clearing out the old guard, as early results in the wake of the November 8 polls appeared a wash for the NLD.

But U Shwe Mann had taken great pains in his campaign to distance himself from the ruling elite being struck from their parliamentary slots. Friction between President U Thein Sein and the Speaker was already sparking long before the elections, with the two seen as representing different visions for the future of the party, and how fast it would loosen the military’s grip on political power.

An internal USDP coup in August that purged U Shwe Mann from party leadership was initially perceived as helping bolster U Shwe Mann’s image as a reformist. But his efforts to build a cult of personality around his political conversion – from Senior General Than Shwe’s protégé to harbinger of democracy – failed to sway the voters of Pyu township, the ousted USDP chair’s hometown.

U Shwe Mann’s bid to take Pyu as a returned local hero willing to put his mantle of accomplishments to work for the hard-toiling farmers proved catastrophically out of touch with the local perception. None of the Pyu voters The Myanmar Times spoke with in Pyu saw U Shwe Mann as a native, and his attempts to connect with the grassroots were largely futile while campaigning from the comforts of a luxury vehicle. By contrast, the NLD held a rock concert outside the house of one of the local candidates, and the independent contestant helped string up lights in key neighbourhoods.

In attempting to shake his neophyte reputation, U Shwe Mann appeared to be part the USDP’s larger – and evidently failed – push to portray candidates as one of the townfolk. Commentator U Chit Win suggested that since the USDP doesn’t have a “brand” like the largest opposition party the strategy became passing off the elites as local heroes.

“This is a new strategy for a once pervasive and invincible party that is trying out a new look and hoping that the incumbent USDP legislators will become the party’s saviors in Myanmar’s ‘brave new world’,” he wrote in the Nikkei Asian Review.

But the strategy may have backfired, as straddling the middle only alienated both the opposition’s camp and the hardliners. Despite U Shwe Mann’s close working relations with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, his entrenched military regime background barred many would-be supporters from fully embracing him as a reformist, while his backing of constitutional amendments and stacking of the party’s candidate list just before his ousting alienated the military crew.

Some analysts pointed out that the Speaker was not even facing a particularly tough battle against the NLD in Pyu; his rival candidate was no celebrity lawmaker, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did not lead nearby rallies during her campaign tour throughout the country.

U Shwe Mann’s family and entourage seemed confident of victory even into the eve of the election – with his son, prominent businessman U Toe Naing Mann, claiming that the local populace wanted to elect a “strongman”.

While some are suggesting that the former general’s political career is now on ice, others are more confident U Shwe Mann might find a place in the next government.

“The NLD has a track record of taking in generals who have fallen from favour, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi certainly appears fond of U Shwe Mann. I would not like to rule out the possibility of him being given some kind of role under an NLD government,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK.

While U Shwe Mann may not be appearing in the next Pyithu Hluttaw, his influence among at least some section of the military crowd cannot be underestimated, according to political analyst Bridget Welsh.

Even as the NLD looks poised to claim a landslide victory, “the key will be to find and maintain bridges with different stakeholders. USDP still holds seats and are an important bridge to the military,” she said.