Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
An air of optimism is rushing through the country, but reservations remain about the electoral rules and ethnic tension.
A young supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi waits for her arrival during a rally in Thanlyin Township on 21 August, 2015. Photo by Getty Images.A young supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi waits for her arrival during a rally in Thanlyin Township on 21 August, 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

On 8 November the Burmese people will go to the polls in the most democratic elections Myanmar has seen in decades. No fewer than 91 political parties have registered, an indication perhaps of the popular enthusiasm for a truly representative government after years of military rule. The last openly democratic elections in 1990 were won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, but stolen by the military which refused to accept the choice of the people.

Much has changed in the interim, and in appearance and reality these elections will be far more open than those in 2010. There will be no restrictions on the press and international observers, including a major EU mission, will be present. Domestically the press in Myanmar has become far more open than was the case in 2010. The election commission has conducted itself in a business-like manner and won plaudits from diplomats and commentators so far. Indeed, these elections are likely to be among the most open in ASEAN, with only Indonesia and the Philippines being more transparent.

Electoral pitfalls

Nevertheless there are significant caveats which are likely to blunt the NLD’s bid for political power. The most critical of these is the constitutional provision preventing NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming head of state, on the grounds that she was married to a foreigner. In addition, under the present constitution, the army has reserved for itself no less than 25 per cent of the seats in parliament. These aspects were codified in the constitution of 2008, pushed through in a flawed referendum by the ruling military government.

Flaws have also been found in the electoral roll, and this is an area where international observers such as the EU are likely to be critical. While polling is still in its infancy in Myanmar, the general outcome would seem to be clear, namely that the opposition NLD is likely to do well and the ruling USDP (Union Solidarity and Democracy Party), dominated by the military, will fall significantly short of the 70 per cent of the seats it secured in 2010.

But if there are shortcomings with regard to the electoral roll and the exclusion of Aung San Suu Kyi from presidential candidacy, the election of the next president is more transparent. The head of state is elected by the new parliament from a list of three candidates. In all probability, the NLD could aspire to hold close to half the seats. While many believe Aung San Suu Kyi will insist on a civilian head of state, she may see merit in choosing a military candidate. For some time she has had a good working relationship with General Shwe Mann, the current speaker of parliament, who was removed from his post as head of the USDP in August amid reports of infighting. Some even speculate that she might be willing to accept President Thein Sein provided he endorses wide-ranging reforms.

Ethnic tensions

If these relatively benign scenarios look promising there is a darker side to the elections. The current government has worked hard to establish ceasefires with the country’s minorities, many of whom have been in revolt against the central government since the departure of the British in 1948. But while the ceasefires have been reasonably successful, conditions in many areas where there have been insurgencies for decades are hardly conducive to holding elections. Registration of voters in northeastern areas of the country abutting China and Laos are said to be especially poor.

A wider issue that the election campaign has exposed is the country’s sometimes dangerous mix of religion and politics, and in many cases overt hostility by the majority Buddhist community against minorities. In this regard it is striking that neither the governing USDP nor the opposition NLD are fielding a single Muslim candidate despite the fact they account for more than five per cent of the population and are especially important in Rakhine state. Indeed, in Rakhine it is estimated that several hundred thousand Muslim Rohingya have been disenfranchised, which neither parliament nor the constitutional tribunal have seen fit to reverse. There are also concerns that the extremist MaBaTha organization, the Buddhist-led Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, could provoke unrest in the remaining days of the election campaign.

Serious though these shortcomings are, there remains an air of optimism in Myanmar that the country is moving from a past dominated by decades of military rule to a situation where more representative government is at last taking root.

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