Burma’s ruling party voted Tuesday to keep President Thein Sein as chairman but picked his main rival to take over some of his duties as the party prepares to face a resurgent opposition led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2015 general elections.
The decision was made in a closed-door vote by the executive committee of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which held its annual conference attended by hundreds of party members in the capital Naypyidaw.
In a political compromise, Thein Sein will remain head of the USDP but fellow reformer Shwe Mann, the speaker of Burma’s lower house of parliament, will take over the day-to-day running of the party, according to those who attended the meeting.
Shwe Mann was re-elected one of the party’s three vice chairmen. The two others are Htay Oo, a formerly party general secretary, and Aye Myint, chairman of a parliamentary committee on sports, culture, and public relations development.
Shwe Mann’s son Toe Naing Mann, who was formerly a member of the party’s central committee but attended the conference as an observer, said his father will assume some of Thein Sein’s duties considering the president’s busy schedule.
“Since President Thein Sein is the president of the country and he can't take on [all of] the party chairman's duties … vice chairman Shwe Mann will jointly share the work of the chairman for now,” he told RFA’s Burmese service.
The lower house speaker is seen as a growing rival to the president, who has spearheaded the country’s reforms since taking the helm of Burma’s nominally civilian government in March 2011 following decades of military rule.
Shwe Mann is widely considered to harbor ambitions of taking the presidency after the 2015 polls, and some USDP members had said before Tuesday’s executive committee vote that they expected him to be named party chairman.
The selection of the USDP leadership comes as the party discussed its strategy for the 2015 vote at the three-day conference, which Thein Sein and Vice President Sai Mauk Kham attended on Monday.
“The conference is important as it will lay down guidance for the party for the 2015 election,” conference committee chairman Aung Thaung told RFA ahead of the meeting.
In addition to electing party leaders on Tuesday, the USDP also reorganized the 44-member Central Executive Committee from among some 300 members of a larger panel.
The USDP, the successor party to the Burmese military’s Union Solidarity and Development Association, won three quarters of the seats in parliament in the last general election in November 2010, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted.
But in April by-elections, the NLD won 43 out of 44 seats it contested, making it the largest opposition party in parliament and ushering into office the longtime democracy leader who had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest under the former military junta.
Aung San Suu Kyi said last week that she would be willing to lead the country as president and that her party will work to amend laws that block her from leading the government.
Burma’s constitution, written in 2008 under the country’s former military junta, bars her from the presidency on the grounds that her sons possess foreign citizenship and her late husband was a foreigner.
Thein Sein has left open the possibility of serving another term in office after the 2015 elections.
"If I have my way, I will only serve one term,” said the 67-year-old retired general at a forum in New York last month.
“But of course, the future of the position depends on the needs of the country and the wishes of the people,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.