Suu Kyi wins strong popular mandate in Myanmar election
13 Nov 2020|

Early results indicate another massive victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Myanmar’s 8 November general election. Ninety-one political parties fielded candidates, but the elections were again essentially a first-past-the-post contest between the NLD, identifying with democracy and a change from military rule, and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), identifying with stability and security. Women constituted only 16% of the candidates. Unlike 2015, when the NLD didn’t field a single Muslim candidate, this year it fielded two.

The NLD polled better than expected—preliminary results indicate the party will win well above the 322 seats needed to form a majority in its own right. The ethnic-based parties, less fractured than in 2015, had mixed results, faring better in some regions and worse in others. The big loser was the USDP, which failed to get re-elected in most of its seats, including its four stronghold seats in southern Mandalay Region. The party is challenging the results, claiming the election was unfair.

With the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, some commentators had claimed this year’s election could never be free and fair, while others had called for the poll to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Notwithstanding the imperfections, the results have been widely accepted as broadly reflective of the wishes of the people—other than their wish for Suu Kyi to be president. The strong popular mandate reflects the nation’s abiding admiration of and trust in her.

There were several improvements in this year’s elections. Voting for soldiers and their families was shifted from unobservable military cantonments to regular polling stations where the counting was subject to the scrutiny of national and international observers (votes are counted at polling stations). Overseas voting is reported to have been much better organised for this election. And people over the age of 60 in lockdown areas were permitted to vote early to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection.

As in 2015, many voices were not heard, not just the disenfranchised Rohingya but also millions of undocumented migrant workers in Thailand and ethnic minorities in conflict zones who were unable to vote. The treatment of the Rohingya wasn’t an election issue, but the two Muslim candidates were subjected to a barrage of ethnic- and religious-based abuse and misinformation on Facebook, despite its intensified efforts to block and remove harmful content. In a victory over prejudice, both candidates were elected.

The Union Election Commission cancelled voting in parts of the country that were at risk of armed conflict, including most of Rakhine State, where three NLD candidates had been kidnapped by the Arakan Army, a Buddhist Rakhine ethnic armed group. Aside from these incidents, there was little election-related violence. Observers reported that the elections were well conducted with only a few problems on election day. Voter turnout was high and coronavirus fears didn’t keep people away from polling stations, which had safety precautions including hand sanitiser, masks and face shields in place.

The military-drafted 2008 constitution remains the biggest obstacle to free and fair elections. The intention of the drafters was to keep the military in de facto control under the guise of a civilian-led, popularly elected government. This was to be achieved by reserving 25% of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of the national parliament for uniformed military appointees chosen by the commander-in-chief of defence services, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

And the only serious threat to military dominance, Suu Kyi, is precluded from becoming president because she is married to a foreigner and has children with foreign citizenship. In 2015, the NLD side-stepped this constitutional obstacle by appointing a compliant president and creating the position of state counsellor for Suu Kyi. There is no provision in the constitution for a state counsellor, but the public welcomed her assertion that she was above the president. We can expect this precedent to be followed when the new parliament sits to elect the vice presidents and then a president.

The president chooses most ministers and the chief ministers of the 14 administrative regions and states (irrespective of the outcome of regional elections), but it is the commander-in-chief who chooses the ministers for defence, border affairs and home affairs. The commander is not answerable to any civilian or other authority and holds a monopoly on the coercive power of the state. The military also has extensive and opaque business interests. The military sees itself as the praetorian guard of national unity and stability, and the civilian side governs constrained by a fear of military reintervention.

The choice of president will be critical to the NLD’s modus operandi continuing to work. Then the president’s subsequent choice of ministers will be closely watched for signs that the current aged group of men will be replaced by people with the energy, ideas and confidence to make decisions. The long-term success of Myanmar’s democratic and economic transition needs teamwork and to develop a cohort of experienced potential leaders.

The victorious NLD can be expected to continue with economic reforms, but it won’t directly target the military conglomerates. Rather, the reforms will progressively diminish the military’s absolute and relative importance by introducing competition, reviewing and removing restrictive licensing requirements that only benefit the incumbents, and revitalising other sectors of the economy. Many in Myanmar have a misplaced hope that President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the United States will eventually see a return to better bilateral relations, but in reality they will continue to accept with some ambivalence the friendship of China.

The unambiguous NLD victory is a clear sign of the people’s faith in the capacity of civilians to govern. This doesn’t mean the military will now consent to constitutional reform, but the NLD is in a much stronger position to argue for it. And those who care about democracy and an accountable military in Myanmar should see their way to support Suu Kyi on this issue.