Myanmar's Union Solidarity and Development Party to pick new chief
No 2 man and reformer Shwe Mann is waiting in the wings to lead the battle against the Suu-Kyi-led opposition in the 2015 election
Myanmar's army-backed ruling party is preparing for a leadership revamp as the dramatic political reforms that it has helped foster threaten to bring an electoral wipeout in 2015.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party, created by former generals who shed their uniforms to run for office, will kick off a three-day conference today to choose a new party chief and try to map out a new strategy.
The top post has remained vacant since Thein Sein, now 67, stepped down last year to take office as president of Myanmar amid the country's emergence from decades of outright military rule.
Rival reformer Shwe Mann, the lower house speaker and USDP vice-president, is seen as the favourite to replace him at the helm of the party, which has huge financial resources at hand to woo voters.
"Most USDP members want Shwe Mann to be chairman," one member of parliament from the party said. "He's the one who can lead the party."
The USDP swept a ballot two years ago that was marred by claims of fraud and the absence of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest just days later.
But Suu Kyi led the opposition to a landslide victory in April by-elections that left the ruling party staring at almost certain defeat in three years if the vote is free and fair.
"If any group has everything to lose in 2015 it is the USDP," a foreign diplomat said. "The army knows it will remain, for a long time, the backbone of the regime … But the ruling party has a lot to worry about."
At the next election, the USDP would not be able to fall back on the unfair tactics that it was accused of using during the 2010 poll, Yangon-based lawyer Than Maung said. "People will be more educated about the democratic system," he said.
The ruling party is putting on a brave face, insisting that it remains committed to supporting democratic reforms.
USDP secretary general Htay Oo said voters chose the National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi because of a belief that the opposition party "would be better at working for them", indicating that they were beginning to embrace democratic principles.
"If that's the case, it is a good thing. People will decide depending on the work on the ground practically," he said recently. "We are also keeping in touch with the people. So we believe they will understand us."
Within the USDP, however, political rivalries are heating up.
Analysts say Thein Sein and Shwe Mann are locked in a power struggle, with the lower house speaker widely seen to harbour ambitions of taking the presidency after 2015. The relationship between the pair, both former generals, is believed to have soured after Thein Sein was appointed president while Shwe Mann, who was more senior under the previous regime, took the lesser role of speaker.
But their biggest rival could be Suu Kyi, who said last week that she had "the courage to be president" if elected.
That would require constitutional amendments to let people with close foreign relatives hold high office. Suu Kyi married a British academic and has two sons living in the West.