Many foreigners believe that Myanmar is moving towards full-blown democracy, with a general election scheduled for November 8th. To the armed forces, democracy is fine so long as they can still call most of the shots. They will find this much harder if the army-backed party in parliament, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), loses its majority, as seems possible. Against this backdrop of soldiers keen to cling to power, President Thein Sein, a former general, has started to purge the ranks of the ruling party.

The iron fist came down on another former general, Shwe Mann, the rich, ambitious and well-connected speaker of the parliament’s lower house. He associated himself with reform, allowing parliamentary votes (which did not pass) on constitutional amendments that would have limited the influence of the army (which currently has a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for it, giving it a veto on constitutional change). Mr Shwe Mann had also forged relations with Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and Myanmar’s most popular politician.

At some point he crossed a line, for on August 13th he was deposed as party chief. At midnight armed police surrounded the USDP headquarters in Naypyidaw, the capital. Mr Shwe Mann and his faction were replaced by a bunch of generals hurriedly retired from active service. A government mouthpiece, the Global New Light of Myanmar, blandly called this all “part of a normal course of business for a registered political party”. Mr Shwe Mann remains as speaker, for now.

As for Ms Suu Kyi, her party is facing ructions of its own. Its central committee, which she dominates, recently rejected many election candidates put forward by local party branches, as well as a score of “88 Generation” activists—veterans of a student uprising in 1988, most of whom spent years in prison, partly for their loyalty to Ms Suu Kyi. Some party members took to the streets in protest at the candidate list; Ms Suu Kyi expelled ten of them.

What does the Lady want?
Ms Suu Kyi says supporters should just vote for the party, ie, herself, rather than individual candidates. Some say she fears rivals. Certainly, she has failed to groom a younger generation of leaders—Ms Suu Kyi, who is 70, has no clear successor. Her forceful personality, combined with the people’s contempt for the generals, will probably be enough to make the NLD emerge as the largest party. But she has said little about policy or governance.

Even if the NLD wins more seats than any other party, Myanmar’s electoral system will probably keep it from exercising power. Of 664 seats in both houses of parliament, 498 are up for grabs with the rest reserved for the army. The NLD would, on the most optimistic scenario, need to win 333 of the contested seats to gain a ruling majority; by contrast, the USDP would need 167 seats, given the army’s quota. In fact, winning a majority will be a tall order for either party. Although the USDP and the army are deeply unpopular, anti-government votes are likely to be split among the NLD and dozens of smaller parties, particularly in constituencies dominated by ethnic minorities. Some of these think the NLD looks down on them.

Once seated, parliament will choose a president from among three candidates nominated by the upper house, the lower house and the army (the two losers become vice-presidents). The new president appoints a cabinet. Unless the NLD holds a commanding majority in both houses, Myanmar can look forward to months of horse-trading over the presidency. And even if the NLD does get its majority, the constitution bars people with foreign spouses or children from being president. The measure was designed specifically to exclude Ms Suu Kyi. Some have speculated that she was preparing to back Mr Shwe Mann for president; he would have then repealed the constitutional bar and lent Ms Suu Kyi his support the next time round. If that was so, Mr Thein Sein and the generals have blocked her path.

Mr Thein Sein’s move presumably stems in part from a struggle between long-standing rivals. It would be cause for greater worry if it signalled the generals’ intention to retrench. They and the USDP may be trying to ensure that the election produces a result that they can live with, while hoping that international donors in effect connive in their “disciplined democracy” by continuing to pour aid money into the country. If so, the generals may be calculating correctly.

http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21661803-former-general-purges-ruling-party-aung-san-suu-kyi-jockeys-position-pistols-and-purges