Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein was reappointed Tuesday as head of the ruling party at a key meeting aimed at reviving its flagging political fortunes against a resurgent opposition.
The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which held its first major conference in the regime’s showpiece capital Naypyidaw, is seeking a new strategy to avert a possible major electoral defeat in 2015.
But in the end the party refrained from replacing Thein Sein as its leader amid signs of political rivalry within its top ranks.
Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, a fellow reformer who had been tipped for promotion, was picked as acting chairman to handle the day-to-day business in a closed-door vote by the executive committee, members said.
The surprise outcome of Tuesday’s leadership vote was seen as a compromise to maintain unity within a party facing an uncertain future.
“In one sense the party won – it still has the most popular person from the old order as its nominal head,” said independent Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey, speaking of Thein Sein.
He said the move might also come as a blessing in disguise for Shwe Mann.
“If he had pushed to take the top position, he would be more closely shackled to a sinking – or at least floundering – ship and would have more responsibility for making it seaworthy.”
Thein Sein relinquished an active party role to lead the country last year as it emerged from nearly half a century of outright military rule.
Analysts say he has been locked in a power struggle with Shwe Mann, who was more senior under the previous military regime and is widely considered to harbour ambitions of taking over the presidency.
A senior USDP official told AFP before the vote that Thein Sein “doesn’t seem to want to give up the chairman’s position although we planned to replace him with Shwe Mann”.
Many USDP members had said beforehand thst they expected Shwe Mann to be named party chairman. But the mood apparently shifted after Thein Sein and his entire cabinet turned up on the first day of the conference on Sunday.
MPs said the actual result aimed to prevent friction between the government and the ruling party.
“To have good relations between the executive and the party we have to keep the positions of the ministers and the president the same” within the USDP, said a party member who did not want to be named.
“If we change too much, relations between the government and the party will be difficult.”
The USDP is still reeling from a heavy defeat in April by-elections at the hands of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won 43 of the 44 seats it contested.
In a speech to party delegates earlier in the day, Shwe Mann urged members to “participate in the reform process”.
“When we reorganise the party we will transform ourselves into the people’s party,” he added.
The USDP swept a general election two years ago that was marred by allegations of fraud and the absence of Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time.
Observers say the blossoming of freedoms in Myanmar has put the USDP at a distinct disadvantage if it goes up against the party of the hugely popular Suu Kyi in democratic polls.
Suu Kyi said recently she had “the courage to be president” if elected.
That would mean amending a constitution which bars those with close foreign relatives from holding high office. Suu Kyi, who married a British academic, has two sons living in the West.