Yangon – Myanmar’s army-backed ruling party is preparing for a leadership revamp as the dramatic political reforms that it has helped foster threaten to bring an electoral wipeout in 2015.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party, created by former generals who shed their uniforms to run for office, will kick off a three-day conference on Sunday to choose a new party chief and attempt to map out a new strategy.

The top post has remained vacant since President Thein Sein, now 67, stepped down from the role in 2011 to take office as the country formerly known as Burma emerged from decades of outright military rule.

Rival reformer Shwe Mann, the lower house speaker and USDP vice president, is seen as the favourite to replace him at the helm of the party, which has huge financial resources to use to woo voters.

“Most USDP members want Shwe Mann to be chairman,” said one ruling party MP who did not want to be named. “He’s the one who can lead the party.”

The USDP swept an election two years ago that was marred by allegations of fraud and the absence of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest just days later.

But Suu Kyi led the opposition to a landslide victory in April by-elections that appeared to take the ruling party by surprise and left the USDP staring at almost certain defeat in three years if the vote is free and fair.

“If any group has everything to lose in 2015 it is the USDP,” said a foreign diplomat who did not want to be named.

“The army knows that it will remain, for a long time, the backbone of the regime… But the ruling party has a lot to worry about.”

At the next election the USDP will not be able to fall back on the unfair tactics that it was accused of using during the 2010 poll, according to Yangon-based lawyer Than Maung.

“People will be more educated about the democratic system,” he said, adding that the 2015 election would “not be easy” for the USDP compared with 2010.

The ruling party is putting on a brave face, insisting that it remains committed to supporting democratic reforms.

USDP Secretary General Htay Oo said voters chose the NLD because of a belief that the opposition party “would be better at working for them”, indicating that they are beginning to embrace democratic principles.

“If that’s the case, it is a good thing. People will decide depending on the work on the ground practically,” he told AFP recently. “We are also keeping in touch with the people. So we believe they will understand us.”

But even within the USDP political rivalries are heating up.

Analysts say Thein Sein and Shwe Mann are locked in a power struggle, with the lower house speaker widely considered to harbour ambitions of taking the presidency after 2015.

The relationship between the pair, both former generals, is believed to have soured after Thein Sein was appointed president while Shwe Mann, who was more senior under the previous regime, took the lesser role of speaker.

But their biggest rival for the top job could be Suu Kyi, who said this week she had “the courage to be president” if elected.

That would require the amendment of a constitution that bars those with close foreign relatives from holding high office. Suu Kyi, who married a British academic, has two sons living in the West.

Reforms, including the release of hundreds of jailed dissidents and the increasing boldness of local media, have also thrown the political scene into flux and observers do not rule out an eventual split in the USDP.

“I can fully imagine a schism,” said the foreign diplomat, who describes a stand-off between the “heirs” of the former regime and the “locally respected candidates who were recruited by the junta but do not feel a particular affinity with party bigwigs”.

Others fear a dramatic swing from the USDP to the politically inexperienced NLD could destabilise the country, arguing that the reforms have only been possible because they did not threaten the military and its allies.

According to Myanmar intellectual Aung Tun Htet, a “grand coalition” of the main parties in parliament could be the best way to ensure a decade-long peaceful transition.

“We can’t afford to have the complete collapse of the USDP,” he said.

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