Myanmar May Get a Real Election

Myanmar faces a major test of its intentions towards democracy this year with national elections in November. The elections are to replace a legislature established by the former junta. That 2010 election left the military firmly in charge, with 57 percent of the seats held by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, made up of military officers.

Since that 2010 election, Myanmar has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts that the cynics didn’t expect under the leadership of President U Thien Sein. The November 2015 election, according to the International Crisis Group, is likely to replace the USDP’s dominance with legislature more reflective of popular sentiment, with the opposition National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi “well-placed to take the largest bloc of seats.”

There have been deep disappointments about the government since the quasi-democratic elections, including a continuing crackdown on the press with the death of one journalist at the hands of the army although a lively press has flourished. The government ordered Medecins Sans Frontiers out of the country over charges the humanitarian organization was fomenting trouble with the Rohingya minorities, who have been grievously discriminated against. The organization has since returned to work with them. The country’s ethnic stew on its borders remains intractable.

Nonetheless, according to the International Crisis Group, “There have been major improvements in election administration since the deeply flawed 2010 elections and the more credible 2012 by-elections. While the election commission is still widely perceived as close to the government and the USDP, the transparent and consultative approach it has adopted and the specific decisions it has taken suggest it is committed to delivering credible polls.”

The government has made a major effort to update and digitize the voter rolls, has consulted with civil society and international electoral support organisations on the regulatory framework; invited international electoral observers for the first time as well as to domestic observers, has modified provisions on advance voting and reduced the costs of candidacy.

“The broader political environment is also more conducive to credible elections, with a significantly freer media and much improved civil liberties,” the ICG said in a report issued this week. However, the Brussels-based independent NGO said, “There remain major challenges to a credible, inclusive and peaceful election. Much of the periphery of the country is affected by armed conflict, and though there have been important steps toward bringing the six-decade civil war to a close, the process remains fragile and incomplete. The vote could be marred by violence in some areas and will not be possible in others.”

In central Myanmar, rising ethnic Burman nationalism, the vast majority of whom are Buddhists, and anti-Muslim sentiment have exploded into violence, “something that could happen again in the politically charged context of an election. In Rakhine state, minority Muslim communities have been disenfranchised by a decision to cancel their identification documents. Electoral security and risk management preparations have become a critical priority of the election commission. Capacity constraints will also come into play.”

As the report points out, Myanmar has very limited experience of democratic polls, including government staff, security services and election commission staff at the local level. Understanding among the electorate is also very low, and major education efforts will be required.

“For the elections to be successful, there must also be broad acceptance of the results,” the report notes. “In a context of divergent expectations and, inevitably, winners and losers, this will be a challenge.” While Thein Sein and his reformers appear reconciled to the prospect that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party – which boycotted the 2010 elections – will win a majority of the seats, “ it is unclear whether this sentiment is shared by a majority of the old elite. Similarly, it is unclear whether the NLD’s base fully understands likely post-election scenarios.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself is barred from the presidency by a constitutional provision designed to keep her out – the charter bars those who have been married to a foreigner. The party leader and democracy icon’s husband died of cancer in the UK while she was under house arrest. There is no obvious alternative president within the NLD ranks, making it possible that even if the party wins a landslide, it will have to select a compromise candidate for president – potentially a reformist member of the old regime.

The three months between the elections and the presidential electoral college’s decision will be a time of considerable uncertainty, possible tension, and intense behind-the-scenes negotiation, the ICG says. “The outcome, and the extent to which it is broadly accepted, will determine whether there is a smooth transfer of power and whether the next administration will have the broad support necessary to govern or have its legitimacy constantly questioned.”

Probably the most important factor will be the support – or at least acquiescence – of the military, which retains strong influence over the process. The commander-in-chief has voiced support for the democratic electoral process and has undoubtedly foreseen the prospect of strong support for the NLD. “But this does not mean he would be comfortable with all the potential implications of such an outcome.”

The elections are coming less than five years into what will continue to be a long and difficult transition, the report concludes. “They create a moment of political competition and polarization in a transition process that requires compromise and consensus. If credible and inclusive, they can help to build confidence that the country is on a new political path and thereby inject fresh momentum into the reforms. Equally, they could damage the delicate set of compromises that has so far kept the process broadly on track. It behooves political leaders on all sides to ensure that they keep this larger prize foremost in their minds.”