During a rally in the capital yesterday, the ruling party’s secretary trumpeted the USDP as setting the reform agenda, and the only party capable of continuing to charter a course through the country’s transition.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Which party started democracy?” U Tin Naing Thein, former minister of the President’s Office and a retired brigadier general, asked the gathering of Union Solidarity and Development Party candidates and supporters in the military stronghold.

“USDP,” the crowd shouted back.

“We should say that Myanmar’s democratic reforms started with the USDP,” the secretary said, hewing the party line before introducing the catalogue of candidates at a campaign event in Zeyathiri township.

“[Thanks to the USDP] Myanmar has achieved a democratic path that gained international acceptance,” he added.

The party of former military elites hopes to ride the well-worn narrative – that it initiated the quasi-civilian government and must guide an ensuing “step-by-step” democratisation that preserves military interests and thus prevents the disintegration of the Union – all the way to the polls.

“The USDP is … campaigning as the party that set Myanmar on its democratic course, taking credit for the political and economic reforms put in place since 2011. Naturally this does not sit well with some of the opposition parties that have literally bled on behalf of democratic change,” William Wise, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a former US Air Force colonel, said during a panel discussion about the Tatmadaw’s role in the election at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.

The USDP says its critics expect too much development too soon. U Tin Naing Thein yesterday asked ralliers to recount hallmarks of development over the party’s five years in power.

“In 2010, there were only 10 or 20 motorcycles in a village. But now almost every house has a motorcycle. So, people can see if there is progress or not,” he said.

Opposition critics say the party’s track record on democracy and development rings hollow, pointing to stunted political and economic growth, and a government budget directed into bloated military coffers and away from perennially cash-strapped social sectors such as healthcare and education.

In a recent Facebook satire of the USDP campaign shared over 15,000 times, a Myanmar citizen in Singapore reinterpreted party slogans: “Vote for the USDP to support beating students for taking pictures,” one said. “Vote for the USDP so that China can smuggle timber out of the country,” another reads.

Formed to contest the flawed 2010 general elections, the Union Solidarity and Development Party is largely seen as the political vehicle for former military elites who hung up their uniforms to run the government. As the quasi-civilian and elected complement to the appointed military members of parliament, the USDP enables the military’s majority vote.

“Like other militaries which initiated a transition from military route to democracy, the Burmese military feel that they initiated this transition so they need to manage it in a way that it is stable,” U Win Min, a visiting senior research fellow at the Myanmar Development Resource Institute’s Center for Economic and Social Development – a think tank set-up by an advisor to President U Sein Thein – said during the same panel in Washington DC.

According to Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the precarious state of democracy is such that it cannot change hands from its military chaperones until comprehensive peace is achieved – meaning the nationwide ceasefire signed and all insurgencies quelled. He has said that process could take five years or more.

But former USDP chair and parliamentary Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann and his reformist camp sought to undermine the military’s firm hold on the mechanics of democratisation. In June the Speaker allowed a debate and vote on an opposition-bolstered amendment to the 2008 constitution guaranteeing the military’s 25 percent bloc, as well as a bill suggesting that only elected representatives be eligible for presidential nomination.

Revealing the divisions running through the ruling party, the Speaker was ousted in an overnight coup in the party’s Nay Pyi Taw headquarters in August. A party purge kicked out several of the reformist cadre and buttressed the central executive committee with freshly retired military generals, as well as reinstating President U Thein Sein as the honorary party chair.

“Short-term political implications aside, the purge reminds us that, for better or for worse, the armed forces’ overriding goals must be kept in mind in determining how best to pursue and consolidate democratic reforms in Myanmar,” Lynn Kuok, a nonresident fellow at the US Brookings Institute, wrote about the purge.

But the impact of Thura U Shwe Mann’s leadership on the party’s election plans remains to be seen. As party chair he had rejected the candidacy of nearly two-thirds of the retired officer ensemble proposed by the military. He also denied party veterans like President’s Office ministers U Soe Thein and U Aung Min “safe seats” in constituencies dominated by military families.

According to U Win Min, the USDP is not looking to win the election – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is expected to sweep the polls – but instead to take a strategic 26 percent of seats. If the party succeeds, the USDP parliamentarians combined with the military bloc can shoo-in their presidential nominee.

“The main thing [the USDP is aiming for] is to influence the election process in a way to select the president. It doesn’t matter if they don’t win a majority … [Daw] Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity is so huge in the country she will win a majority,” he said.

But if the 2012 by-elections can serve as any indication of the coming polls, the USDP will be lucky to capture even 15pc of the votes.

In such a scenario, the ruling party will drum up support through pressuring and bribing ethnic parties, smaller parties and individual representatives “in a coalition” to counter the NLD’s presidential frontrunner, U Win Min said.

“[Barring that] they may allow the NLD to run the government, but will not follow the next president,” U Win Min said, adding that it could even resort to undermining an opposition-led regime by fomenting unrest in areas controlled by armed ethnic groups. Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing has promised to respect the results of a “free and fair” election, and that “no coup” will occur whatever the outcome.

For her part, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently attempted to placate the military’s fears by offering an olive branch – an invitation to collaborate following the polls.

“I want to remove doubts between the NLD and the Tatmadaw and hence have mutual understanding and trust for Union affairs. We want cooperation to fulfill the people’s will without having an impact on the stability of the state,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in her campaign message broadcast on state television this month.

The USDP has not reciprocated the invitation, perhaps focusing on consolidating its hand before conceding to any deals.

If the people want true change, they should choose the USDP, U Hla Htay Win, a retired general and candidate in Zeyathiri township, said at yesterday’s rally, in a mirror of the NLD’s campaign promises.

“Instead of saying, ‘We need to change now,’ or, ‘It’s time for change,’ the people should join us in reforming our country to a democracy. If they want to support true change we welcome them.”