How Myanmar’s ruling party keeps its lawmakers under control

Renaud Egreteau argues that potential dissidents within the NLD are unlikely to gain influence.

Since it took control of the Union parliament and 12 of the 14 state and regional legislatures after the 2015 elections, the National League for Democracy has imposed tight discipline on its 850-odd members of parliament. Media access is restricted. Draft proposals and motions prepared by individual legislators are routinely dismissed by the party’s internal vetting committee and the two speakers of the Union legislature – both NLD officials. Backbenchers are strongly advised not to exert the full extent of their oversight duties by asking “tough questions” to NLD cabinet ministers. Worse, many new parliamentarians feel they are being scolded by senior NLD officials as if they were unruly schoolchildren.

Yet, discipline and cohesion are necessary for a ruling parliamentary majority. Most theories of comparative politics say that disciplined parties are a precondition for responsible party government. Efficient legislative decision-making depends on the ability of the ruling leadership to secure a unified voting bloc in parliament, mobilize its lawmakers whenever needed, and prevent systematic dissent.

Despite growing resentment among NLD lawmakers, there has been no organized dissent in parliament since the start of the NLD-controlled legislature in February 2016. This is puzzling. When the NLD does not receive the full support of its legislators in passing a bill in plenary session, it is often because many are absent, on sick leave, visiting their constituencies or out of the country for international conferences or training programs. Sometimes, MPs have simply made a mistake in pressing the wrong electronic voting button.

Yangon’s regional parliament seems an exception. Its increasingly vocal legislators have not hesitated to criticize publicly the heavy hand of the NLD party machine and the regional Chief Minister, U Phyo Min Thein. But a clearly identifiable factionalism is yet to emerge within the ranks of other NLD parliamentary delegations. Dissent expressed in private discussions or the media has not yet translated into open revolt. The only important resignation of a NLD lawmaker, the former chair of the lower house’s committee on farmers and labour affairs, only occurred in July 2017. After being relieved from his chairmanship duties by the Speaker earlier in December 2016, the newly independent MP publicly refused to comply with his former party’s internal rules, and quit.

Why is this so? How has the NLD, after two years in power, proved in position to hold the ranks despite mounting internal criticism? A ruling party can impose severe punishments on MPs who do not toe the party line. Around the world, ruling parties have employed a vast array of strategies and disciplinary tools to ensure the support of lawmakers in passing bills, prevent them from speaking out or obstructing parliamentary committee work, and curtail dissent. The NLD has diligently used that toolbox recently.

First, the instruments of parliamentary discipline often derive from the ruling party’s control over factors that determine the future of a politician. Party leaders – and the NLD is no exception – typically wield patronage power. They can distribute ministerial or legislative office perks, and local or central party positions to the most loyal supporters. Many NLD candidates who won the 2012 by-elections were rewarded after the NLD’s landslide electoral victory in 2015 with government posts or Chief Ministerships. Other newcomers to the NLD were promptly given prestigious managerial positions in local party branches too.

Second, a ruling party can ensure the cohesion among its rank-and-file MPs by weeding out potential troublemakers. Joining a party to run for office is explicitly contractual, so recalcitrant politicians can be easily screened out and denied inclusion on the party’s lists of candidates for the next elections. The risks for incumbents are particularly high in a first-past-the-post electoral system under a dominant party, such as exists in Myanmar.

Ahead of the 2015 polls, the role of the NLD’s central executive committee in overseeing the selection of new parliamentary candidates was heavily criticized by local sympathisers of the party. To avoid a wave of dissent similar to that observed before the previous elections held in 2010 (and boycotted by the NLD), the senior leadership deliberately excluded long-time local party members in favour of younger and possibly more compliant political novices drawn from civil society or the education sector. This pattern was especially obvious in constituencies of the Sagaing, Irrawaddy, Mandalay and Magwe regions as well as Mon state. This process was also observed before the by-elections held in April 2017.

Third, party leaders can discipline defiant MPs through financial penalties and the withholding of party support for local or international projects. The NLD leadership has regularly sanctioned individual MPs by cancelling scheduled overseas trips or suspending them from party functions at the local branch level. Furthermore, NLD parliamentarians must relinquish 25% of their monthly salary of 1 million kyat ($750) to the party’s coffers. This is much higher than any other parties.

More accommodating strategies can be adopted to maintain lawmakers on board. Parliamentary dissidence in majoritarian political systems is usually short-lived and tends to be single-issue. Cajoling individual MPs to prevent dissent can often pay off. Policy compromises can be brokered and an issue considered crucial by a would-be rebel lawmaker can be put on the legislative agenda to defuse dissent. The fact that a legislative debate on Myanmar’s increasingly criticized defamation laws was initiated by the NLD in July 2017 despite the reluctance of its highest officials seems to be in response to growing concerns within NLD ranks. Many elected lawmakers are former political prisoners who were once the victims of similar repressive legislation.

Young or first-time lawmakers can also be gradually socialized into common thinking and a unifying ideology promoting the “common good” and thus coaxed into leaving aside personal considerations. The NLD has provided numerous trainings, orientation courses and workshops for its candidates and new MPs since 2015. They are taught to present their work as “people-oriented.” They are directed to avoid open criticism and public complaints, including about their own poor living conditions in the municipal residence allotted to Union MPs in the capital, Naypyitaw.

Discipline in Myanmar’s parliament has worked thus far because ambitious MPs do not want to jeopardize their chances for advancement and re-election, or being deprived of various perks and benefits. (And there are indeed many determined would-be local politicians who view the NLD as the sole credible and legitimate vehicle for personal political ambitions.) It has also worked because activists-turned-lawmakers sometimes simply cannot master the art of politicking or else lack proper knowledge of how to conduct rebellious legislative politics. Without an acquaintance with parliamentary procedures or an understanding that ruling parties can sometimes benefit from tolerating some parliamentary dissent, novice lawmakers tend to remain quiet and avoid breaking legislative discipline. Unlike before the 2010 elections, when the NLD last experienced a severe party split over the boycott of a poll controlled by the former junta, resentment is now chiefly being observed among young and new party members, not in the commanding heights of the NLD.

In addition, Myanmar society has been traditionally shaped by Buddhism, which considers values such as obedience and discipline paramount. Seniority is highly respected and dissent from those younger is not normally accepted. Young NLD members who privately criticize the political stance and party management of Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seldom confront her publicly.

There are political risks for the ruling party, though. The greater the resentment, the more likely MPs will look for alternatives or even jump ship. Condescending disciplinary measures and public scolding can provoke a disastrous backlash against the senior party establishment. In January this year, there was a sense of palpable relief among NLD representatives and party rank-and-file as U Win Htein was informally discharged from his party duties. Once the chief organizer of the NLD party machine and a feared member of its central executive committee, the 75-year-old veteran politician had earned himself a tough reputation for bossing around MPs from his room at the heart of Naypyitaw’s municipal guesthouse where civilian MPs reside when the parliament is in session.

The NLD may well lose most of its incumbent MPs in the next election round, scheduled for 2020, although not the election itself. Many have already made no secret of their willingness to leave parliamentary politics after just one term. Being scolded and disciplined by professional politicians, while waiting for the senior party leadership to devise policies their constituents expect is not what civil society activists signed up for when they joined the NLD and ran for office in 2015.

Can the NLD leadership afford to alienate a generation of young, determined, yet potentially disloyal lawmakers? Can the party keep a tight rein over its lawmakers without devising any bottom-up decision-making process or mitigating the grievances of would-be deviant MPs? For now, the NLD’s top brass obviously thinks it can, counting on the quasi-magical aura of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to win more elections in the near future. Urban, educated and outspoken citizens and politicians may criticize the NLD. But in the end, the party seems to believe that rural voters in the central plains and even in ethnic areas will still vote for the political movement incarnated by “A-may Suu”.

In the short-term, the discipline imposed by the NLD hierarchy may not be damaging to the party in parliament, quite the opposite. But in the long-run, the lash of discipline may well produce a generation of frustrated political activists who may consider leaving the NLD and legislative politics altogether. A high level of legislative turnover and the continuing presence of inexperienced members in parliament may well prove a challenge to Myanmar’s aspiring democracy. Not only may the NLD be deprived of its most capable and experienced lawmakers, but the pattern will also prove harmful to the consolidation and professionalization of Myanmar’s parliament, a key agent of democratization.

Renaud Egreteau, a political scientist, authored Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar (Oxford University Press & Hurst, 2016) and Parliamentary Development in Myanmar: An Overview of the Union Legislature, 2011-2016, a report sponsored by the Asia Foundation available here.