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Myanmar’s compromised elections

On 8 July 2015, Myanmar’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government announced that Myanmar would go to elections on 8 November. This raised the prospect of whether Myanmar’s process of reform and liberalization – what US President Barak Obama had earlier called the country’s ‘real but incomplete’ process of democratization – would continue.
In part, the answer had been given the previous month, when Myanmar’s legislature consideration of changing its restrictive constitution was vetoed.
The vote not to change the constitution required 75 per cent of the legislature to vote in its favor. Yet with the armed forces (Tatmadaw) holding 25 per cent of the seats (and having proxy support from some former officers in the USDP) it was easily able to veto five of six proposed constitutional changes. Indeed, this veto power – and the continuing of a quarter of the legislature being unelected – was one of two key issues that defined Myanmar’s ‘incomplete’ democratic transition.
The second key feature that limited Myanmar’s democratic transition was that of disallowing anyone with a close family relative being resident in another country from running for the presidency. This constitutional requirement which was proposed to be changed, but which the Tatmadaw had veto power over, was specifically included to bar the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, from becoming president.
The question then arose as to whether the NLD would contest the forthcoming elections, or boycott them in protest. The answer came less than a week later when Suu Kyi announced that the NLD would contest the elections. She also said that she expected the NLD would achieve an absolute majority in the legislature, meaning the NLD could elect its own president.
However, Suu Kyi said that it was too early to nominate who the NLD would support as its presidential candidate. She appears to be hoping there may still be an opportunity for the constitution to be changed, allowing her to run.
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein said that he would not stand again for the presidency, for ‘health reasons’. Thein Sein’s tenure ends on 10 March 2016, meaning there will be a five month gap between the election of the legislature and the election of the president by that legislature.
In conventional democracies, the government is in care-taker mode and does not pass legislation after an election has been announced. However, not only does the Myanmar legislature retain its ability to pass legislation up until the elections, it also continues to have that capacity after the elections have been decided but before the new legislature takes office months later.
In the interim, unless it can be achieved in the next few weeks, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) being negotiated between the government’s National Ceasefire Coordination Team and 18 armed non-state groups will be put on hold until after a new president takes office.
This means that Myanmar citizens living in conflict areas, who are often supporters of the country’s ethnic parties, will not be able to vote in the elections. This compounds concern over what has been widely identified as incomplete voter registration lists.
More positively, there are a number of international organisations in Myanmar assisting with the election process and there is a belief that, for those voters who are registered, they will be able to vote more or less freely and fairly.
The real question, with the NLD confirming it will participate in the elections, is whether it will be able to achieve an absolute majority in its own right. While there is no doubting the NLD’s general popularity and its high probability of achieving an electoral plurality, it might not achieve an absolute majority.
The USDP is expected to run hard in the elections, unlike the December 2013 by-elections which saw the NLD win 43 of 44 seats contested. One view is that the USDP could win up to 10 or 15 per cent of the vote.
Ethnic parties are also likely to fare well, where they are able to contest outside conflict areas. Viewing the NLD as essentially an ethnic Bamar (Burmese) nationalist party, they will draw votes from non-Bamar minorities. It is unclear what their vote will be, but they are unlikely to form an immediate coalition with the NLD.
Added to the Tatmadaw’s 25 per cent of seats, the new legislature could comprise close to or possibly more than half non-NLD seats. This in itself would not be undemocratic, but the circumstances which may lead to this outcome or, indeed, any other, are less than democratic.
On 8 November, Myanmar will go to elections, but they will be incompletely representative, with a constitutional bar on a Myanmar citizen leading a registered political party from becoming president. Myanmar has undergone significant liberalization since 2010, when the USDP was created to form the new government. But the country’s process of ‘democratisation’ has, for the time being at least, stopped – elections not withstanding.