Myanmar election: five things you should know

Tom Berliner
5 November 2015
Articles and blogs
As the world’s media descends upon Myanmar in an Aung San Suu Kyi-fuelled whirl of excitement, casual observers might feel a bit confused by the complexity of it all.

Here are five pointers to get your head around this potentially ground-breaking event.

1. Aung San Suu Kyi has no chance of being president

Despite her release from house arrest in 2010, her election to parliament in 2012 and her return to the world stage, ‘Daw Suu’ – as she is known in Myanmar – is not able to run for the top job.

This is due to a clause in the national constitution (Article 59f), widely assumed to be in effect for the sole purpose of blocking her. The clause prevents anyone with foreign children from assuming the presidency (Suu Kyi has two sons from her marriage with the late British scholar, Michael Aris).

Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), hasn’t actually established a candidate for the presidency yet. Those rumoured to be in the frame are veterans of the country’s democracy movement who remained loyal to Suu Kyi throughout her years of house arrest. They are now elderly men. Suu Kyi said today that she intends to essentially run the government from behind the scenes.

2. Her party, the NLD, probably won’t sweep to power either

With the people of Myanmar finally empowered to vote out the old regime, you’d think the result was a foregone conclusion. The main opposition, the NLD, might be expected to walk towards an easy victory.

In the last free-and-fair national elections in 1990, the NLD won 80% of seats (the military refused to recognise these results). In the most recent by-election in 2012, they won 43 of the 45 available seats.

Yet their chances of being able to form a government after the 2015 elections are slim. The constitution reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats to the military in both houses. This means the NLD need to win 67% of the remaining seats to achieve a 50% majority in parliament.  

This might seem doable, given past elections. However, these nationwide elections bring plenty of further obstacles. Myanmar is an ethnically diverse country. These ethnic allegiances are strong, compounded by a civil war – the world’s longest running in modern history – between the army and myriad ‘ethnic armed groups’. Smaller parties representing ethnic minorities are likely to perform well in their own regions, largely around the border, limiting the chances of NLD gains here.

Additionally – and perhaps to the surprise of outsiders – the old regime, now represented by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are likely to win many seats.

This leads us to the next point…

3. The old regime is likely to stick around

Yes, Myanmar has undergone major democratic reforms in the past few years. But these reforms are directed, and often limited, by the old regime.

The military will still hold de facto control over parliament after the election: their 25% quota of army-appointed seats allows them to block any new laws that they oppose.

The USDP brand themselves as the party of stability. Buoyed by the recent signing of a ’nationwide’ ceasefire with most (but not all) ethnic armed groups, they can flex considerable campaigning, financial and all-round muscle to win votes in many majority-Bamar (the country’s dominant ethnic group) seats.

Although there are certain checks and balances to prevent ‘vote-buying’, these have not stopped allegations of USDP officials providing favours to voters, such as last-minute road and electricity repairs.

The future parliament will thus likely contain both ordinary USDP MPs and military generals. They are also guaranteed to occupy the key ministerial positions of defence, home affairs and border affairs: the head of the army appoints these.

The current President, Thein Sein, is even thought to be a frontrunner for the presidency. Suu Kyi may back him to maintain stability in parliament. After the election, some political gridlock over the presidency and other issues is likely. Many fear the military could use this as a cause to intervene before the end of 2015.

Yet through their hold on various seats and ministries, by shaping the constitution in their image and maintaining their grip on vital extractive industries, the generals are pretty satisfied with the status quo. A coup looks unlikely.

4. The election, the first on this scale in 25 years, is a bit of a mess

Myanmar has so much riding on the legitimacy of these elections. Yet with the election finally upon us, there is a clear risk of the process looking flawed in the eyes of voters and international observers.

Conflict, bad weather and poor transport mean election observers are likely to struggle to reach polling booths. Some voter lists were found to include deceased people. There are no real polls being carried out against which to compare the eventual results. There will be no elections in regions still gripped by civil war.

There has been confusion over overseas voting and advanced voting. There were threats of a delay due to flooding – this helped fuel fears, mentioned above, of a military intervention in the event of delays in forming a new government.

Either way, a new president is not likely to be appointed until the spring of 2016. All likely scenarios point to a period of uncertainty for some months after the election.

5. Despite the international outcry, the Rohingya remain ignored

Earlier this year, images of Rohingya communities fleeing Myanmar and risking their lives on the high seas in search of asylum caused global outrage. Despite increased international pressure on the Myanmar government to address the crisis, the Rohingya – a Muslim community who mainly reside in Rakhine state – continue to be persecuted. They are completely shut out from this year’s elections. They are barred from running for office and from voting.

You might think Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, would have tried to bring them into the election and fight for their rights. You’d be wrong. She has conspicuously left them off the agenda. On a recent visit to Rakhine state, she failed to even mention their existence. She is believed to be wary of the impact on NLD votes were she to show sympathy for their plight.

The rise of Buddhist nationalist sentiment has turned the issue of Muslims and ‘foreign influences’ in Myanmar into a political tool. The USDP have been keen to stir these – for example, by helping to fuel rumours that Muslims are outbreeding the rest of the country.

*

This might all sound a little disappointing to the concerned observer. But everything about this week’s election needs to be considered in the context of a country that less than five years ago was still a deep dictatorship, sealed off from the wider world with no prospects for change. 

Myanmar is making slow steps towards democracy. Let’s see where it takes them.

Tom Berliner