USDP aids for August 20 party convention
LIFE on the sidelines is not suiting the former ruling party. After months of struggling with its much-diminished political role and watching former opposition lawmakers steer the government, the Union Solidarity and Development Party is looking to buff its reputation and reboot its image at a party conference later this month.
The USDP has been aiming to regroup, and jointly relaunch its next political chapter with a convention held at party headquarters, but the gathering has been repeatedly delayed. Initially, the postponement was attributed to waiting for U Thein Sein to be able to reassume chairing the party after handing over the presidential office.
The party was then rent with internal divisions, and a purge of former high-level members loyal to ex-Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann.
Last week, during a meeting at the party’s Yangon office, U Htay Oo said the USDP is finally settling on a likely date in the third week of August.
“I think we will have our party conference around August 20,” he told reporters.
The party congress is widely anticipated to set off the reforms that will rebuild the party with young recruits, with an eye toward a comeback in the 2020 election.
Following a near eclipse at the ballot box last November, with voters eschewing the old guard in place of the National League for Democracy’s promise for “change”, the USDP is aware of the need for a significant overhaul, but appears to be at a loss over how to recast itself.
No longer in control of the parliamentary agenda, the USDP has failed to re-establish its voice, or to even provide checks and balances on the current administration.
Former lawmaker U Htay Oo acknowledged that the former ruling party MPs are not thriving in their newfound roles.
“We do not have a policy to be an opposition,” the USDP vice chair said.
An internal party report glossed the challenges and power struggles facing the USDP as “weaknesses in building unity, in solidifying the party strength, in persuading voters to vote for the party, in making people understand what the party has done for the local development”.
These issues, the report said, “are the main reason for our election loss”, though the perceived “bias of the media” also allegedly did not help.
Seeking to end the seismic rifts within the party, and to end the dueling poles of authority, U Thein Sein set about purging members whose loyalty he found lacking soon after he reassumed the party reins. Seventeen USDP members, including Thura U Shwe Mann, were sacked in April.
The expelled members fought back, staging a press conference at the end of May in which they termed the former president’s actions “dictatorial”, and demanded justice, as well as a full explanation for the expulsions. But for all their hollering, the ousted members have yet to see much traction among their former USDP peers.
Asked how the party plans to respond to the demands of the former Speaker and his allies, U Htay Oo declined to directly address the question.
Instead, he said, “Our party is built on the mutual trust among its members. If a person inside the party no longer trusts the party, he automatically loses his membership. Also if the party does not trust them, they lose their membership,” he said.
“Whether an individual trusts his party or not can only be proved by the way they act,” he added.
According to the party report, USDP members must all subscribe to the central tenant of pursuing “national politics”, a principal reflected in the 2008 constitution which enshrines the Tatmadaw’s role in politics. The USDP has long been seen as a political vehicle for the Tatmadaw. Alignment with the military establishment was one of several factors perceived as splitting the Thura U Shwe Mann and U Thein Sein camps.
But it does not appear likely that U Shwe Mann and his allies will be invited to party headquarters in Nay Pyi Taw for the coming conference.
The USDP is already moving ahead with a recasting of senior leadership roles after dropping those it found no longer desirable.
The region/state party committees and reserve committees have already been replaced, with new members having taken their oaths.
The party’s conference will select the state and region chairs, as well as secretaries. The candidates nominated by the region or state party branches, the parliamentarians, and the township party offices will be vetted, narrowed to three shortlisted options, and then chosen at the party’s conference.
At an August 5 assembly, the Yangon office put forward its nominations for the region chair, a position which has been vacant since U Myint Swe was appointed as first vice president. The president and vice presidents are constitutionally barred from participating in party activities. Former minister for electric power U Khin Maung Soe has been named as one of the three candidates to take over the Yangon branch.
At the August 5 meeting in Yangon, members also presented papers, trying their hand at reconstituting some of the party’s policies and platforms.
Of the four research papers read at the Yangon meeting, one argued that the 2008 constitution should be amended to adopt a political system based around a federal democratic Union. In his inaugural speech, President U Htin Kyaw officially told the country that his government will prioritise reforming the constitution to guarantee a federal Union.
U Htay Oo said the political system should be based on two principles: the structure of the nation and the delineation of government powers.
“For power sharing, we should examine the extent to which states and regions are controlled by the centralised government or are independent,” he said.
Another paper presented at the USDP gathering criticised the current peace initiatives and argued that the first priority should be convincing the ethnic armed groups to agree to a ceasefire and to surrender their weapons.
U Htay Oo emphasised that the papers submitted represent the perspectives and ideas of individuals, and do not necessarily reflect the stance of the party.
Such debate of policy points is being encouraged however, as the party eyes a revamp. The USDP has announced plans to launch a think tank headed by former ministers U Soe Thein and U Aung Min, and has also held media training, teaching members on how to better interact with the press corps.
When he resumed heading the party in May, U Thein Sein vowed to identify and obliterate weaknesses within the party, and to reassert the USDP to its former prominence.
“We have to cooperate to win the next election by examining these weaknesses and reforming the party,” he said.
U Htay Oo (left), vice chair of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, takes part in a party meeting at the Yangon Region office on August 5.