Free and Fair Polls Critical as World Watches Myanmar

Supporters of the National League for Democracy and its figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi rally ahead of the Myanmar general election. Yangon, November 4, 2015. (Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Myanmar will hold its first general election since the nominal end of the country’s military rule in 2011. There is hope that the international community will strengthen ties with whoever forms the next government, which could in turn put the country on a shorter path to genuine democracy. It could also potentially bring a quicker end to fighting with the country’s ethnic armed groups, which has caused thousands of deaths and displacements over several decades. However, any progress will depend on the polls being considered free and fair.

This will be Myanmar’s first open, multi-party election since 1990, which was overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), in a result that was nonetheless rejected by the military junta. Though the junta subsequently gave up significant control of the parliamentary process in Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, it will still appoint 56 of the 224 seats in the upper house and 110 of the 440 seats in the lower house.

The United Nations, meanwhile, has warned that dozens of candidates have been disqualified and hundreds of thousands of people denied the right to vote ahead of the election, and religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims remain particularly high.

Despite this, many within Myanmar still see the upcoming polls as an opportunity to freely elect representatives for the first time. Most outside observers consider it a major test of the success of the country’s democratic transition to date and of the engagement of international institutions in previous years. From an economic standpoint, a successful election could also bring stability and conditions conducive to attracting more foreign investment.

The poll is also important in furthering the process of national reconciliation between the government and the many armed groups in the country. Though some of these groups signed a ceasefire agreement with the government of President Thein Sein in October, the majority wanted to wait and see how the next government would handle the peace process.

Of Myanmar’s roughly 52-million people, about 32 million are eligible to vote. However, due to security concerns following outbreaks of ethnic-based violence, the Union Election Commission has cancelled voting in more than 500 village tracts, covering a number of states, which could have a significant bearing on results.

Another concern is over the transparency of advance voting. Civil servants, Myanmar nationals living overseas, and tens of thousands of soldiers have already been casting their votes, and the process carries the potential for ballot stuffing. However, the likelihood of this may be less than in previous polls, since early voting will end a day before the actual polling day. In the 2010 election, advance ballots arrived on the day of voting, or allegedly even after the polls were officially closed.

Though several dozen political parties are taking part, the role of three main groups will be vital in this election: the National League for Democracy (NLD), the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and various smaller ethnic-based political parties.

Partly because of the popularity of its pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD is expected to do well, though it is unlikely to win an overwhelming majority similar to 1990 and in the 2012 by-election. This is partly due to the emergence of several political parties from the erstwhile pro-democracy forces.

Regardless of who wins the election, the country’s new president is unlikely to be decided until early next year. The new legislature will be responsible for selecting the eventual leader, with the two chambers each proposing a candidate and the military choosing a third.

While Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from becoming president, a victorious NLD might eventually elect one of her associates, such as Tin Oo—a retired general and former commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Suu Kyi will also likely remain the main architect of any NLD administration and has unequivocally expressed a desire to do so. There is a chance she could emulate Sonia Gandhi’s role during the Congress-led coalition government in India, in which she exercised supreme authority in the party and government, despite Manmohan Singh being the official prime minister.

However, since 25% of parliamentarians will still be military representatives, Suu Kyi will continue to find it difficult to exert authority. To move the country further towards democracy, she will need to find a way to amend or replace the constitution outside the parliament, or through convincing the military leadership of the need to do so, which will be quite a challenge.

If, alternatively, the USDP forms the new government, it is likely to return Thein Sein as national leader—unless he is ostracized by the military leadership or decides the time is right to retire. While there are a number of other possible candidates within the party, the president has increased his legitimacy through five years of gradual reforms, and his command of the peace process. This includes convincing the international community that he is committed to ending what is the world’s longest-running armed conflict.

While many international observers have long supported the cause of Suu Kyi and would likely prefer to see her NLD in power, Myanmar’s ties with the outside world would likely still grow—albeit more gradually—under a USDP leadership, though this also remains contingent on the elections being seen to be free and fair and a reasonable representation of the will of the people.

These ties will also be bolstered if the next government—whichever party comes to power—continues to pursue the peace process with the ethnic armed groups as expected, bringing on board those others who refused to sign the ceasefire agreement in October.

As long as the 2008 constitution is not amended or replaced, however, Myanmar’s military will continue to play a dominant role in the political process, and the political transition will remain incomplete. Regardless of who wins Sunday’s election, and who is eventually appointed president, Myanmar’s road to true democracy remains long and filled with obstacles.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a political scientist and author of three books on Myanmar, including the forthcoming Democratization of Myanmar.