Elections this November took place in two countries that are geographically far apart, and have practically nothing in common. But the results were in both cases as expected, although due to widely different reasons.

In the case of the national elections — the first in 20 years — in Burma (officially Myanmar; the ruling military junta changed the country’s name in 1989), almost 95 percent of the 1,157 contested seats for the bicameral parliament were won by the main political party backed by the junta, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), with the rest of the seats being won by other junta- friendly parties. One opposition party that contested the elections won 16 seats, another, three.

Most opposition parties boycotted the elections, and for understandable reasons. The Election Commission (similar to the Philippines’ Commission on Elections in more ways than one) supervising the exercise was junta-appointed, and not expected to heed complaints of vote buying and fraud.

The country’s leading opposition leader, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was barred from running, being still under house arrest, with the junta saying it would release her only after the elections. Other opposition leaders were also still in prison as election day (November 7) approached. The 0 registration fee they had to pay also prevented other potential candidates from running, while the junta bankrolled USDP and its candidates.

The elections were held under the mandate of a constitution the junta had drafted as part of its effort to give itself a civilian face. But the results won’t change Burma’s status as one of the most impoverished countries in the world, and one of the last in Asia under military rule, which has endured for 48 years since 1962. The elections do provide other countries, for example the United States, one more justification to continue its Obama-era engagement with Burma on the argument that sham elections are better than no election at all.

They dip their fingers into other countries’ affairs, but the United States and its present government have their own problems. Barack Obama’s Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives and barely kept their hold in the Senate in the mid-term elections last November 2 in what’s been described as their worst defeat in 70 years. Obama’s health care reform program could be repealed, among other possibilities. A gridlock between the House and the White House is also likely to devastate Obama’s legislative agenda.

These results have been ascribed to, among other reasons, the huge media campaign, spearheaded by media lord Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, that the Republican Party (the GOP) and their corporate sponsors launched; the organized efforts of the Tea Party movement to unseat Democrats from their seats in Congress; and even to the ignorance of the electorate. Much of that electorate does persist in believing that Obama is not only Muslim, but also a socialist, with many believing 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sara Palin’s claim that he’s “a Marxist”. (He is nothing of the kind; Palin forgot, or is totally ignorant of, the fact that in 2008 among the heaviest contributors to the Obama campaign were US financial houses. )

Even more tellingly, the GOP’s return to power, a scant two years after it had practically been written off as a spent political force, isn’t likely to pull the US economy out of the doldrums of low productivity, high unemployment and falling incomes.

The Republican policies of tax cuts, deregulation and other incentives for the rich and super-rich while cutting social welfare programs that began during the two terms of Ronald Reagan (1980-1988) and which were already being planned during the Nixon presidency, were primarily responsible for the current US recession savaging US worker families and the middle class. And yet the Republicans are promising to put the same policies in place. As one blogger commented, “the reaction against the problem (will) sustain the problem.”

But as the linguistics professor and social critic Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the electorate’s reaction was perfectly understandable if misguided– and disturbingly reminiscent of the Germans’ reaction to the economic difficulties of the post- World War I period, among whose consequences was their putting Hitler in power.

“The grievances are legitimate,” said Chomsky. “For more than 30 years, real incomes for the majority of the population have stagnated or declined while work hours and insecurity have increased, along with debt.” But among the wealthiest one percent of the population, wealth has increased, creating a situation of inequality unique among developed nations.

“These consequences mainly spring from the financialization of the economy since the 1970s and the corresponding hollowing-out of domestic production. Spurring the process is the deregulation mania favored by Wall Street and supported by economists mesmerized by efficient-market myths.

“People see that the bankers who were largely responsible for the financial crisis and who were saved from bankruptcy by the public are now reveling in record profits and huge bonuses. Meanwhile official unemployment stays at about 10 percent. Manufacturing is at Depression levels: one in six out of work, with good jobs unlikely to return.”

Hurting from the recession, the electorate turned against the party in power, which, while not primarily responsible, was perceived to be favoring the rich through its bail out of the banks and other finance houses and the auto industry, while being identified with the bogey of Big Government, which most Americans equate with socialism. The Republicans exploited mass discontent and fears over the future, while papering over their own responsibility for the US economic disaster.

The Republicans may be in a celebratory mood, but their victory doesn’t bode well for the US, which has already assumed some of the characteristics of Third World countries, among them a vast disparity in the distribution of wealth, mass hunger, growing infant mortality rates, and increasing poverty.

As disparate as Burma and the US seem to be, they do share the same prospects for the future, meaning more of the same — in the former’s case, more of the same poverty and mass disempowerment; in the latter, further economic decline, and the pauperization of millions.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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