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Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar goes to the polls

By Susanna Mocker

17 October 2015

On 8 November Myanmar holds important national and regional elections. While the elections are likely to be the freest since the military took power in 1962, a quarter of the seats in the national parliament remain reserved for the military. The incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is being strongly challenged by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi. Another 90 parties are contesting the election, reflecting the diversity of Myanmar.

Ethnic minorities could play a crucial role in the election, firstly because they are being marginalised by the big parties, and secondly (and paradoxically) because they could end up being kingmakers. Today Myanmar resembles a mosaic - a mosaic of more than 130 ethnicities, about two dozens armed groups, 800 000 Rohingya without citizenship and a political system that mixes elements of democracy and military rule with dysfunctional federal state design. Putting together these bits and pieces stands to unlock an economy of 200 billion USD by 2030, more than quadruple the size of Myanmar's economy in 2010.

The USDP and the National Ceasefire Agreement

The elections cannot be understood without an eye towards the overall process of peace and nation-building in Myanmar. Even more so, since incumbent President Thein Sein entered his five-year term in 2011 with the promise to negotiate a national ceasefire agreement (NCA) and to work towards establishing peace. On 15 October the NCA was finally signed. While an important basis to be built upon in the upcoming political dialogue, the NCA does not cover the whole country. Ideally, 21 stakeholders would be included in the NCA to create a sustainable solution, but only 15 have been invited by the government to join the NCA. Only eight armed groups finally signed the NCA, leaving out the two biggest armed groups - the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the United Wa State Army. An alliance of ethnic political groups, the "United Nationalities Federal Council" stated that during the whole negotiations “the occurrence of widespread and ceaseless offensives against the ethnic nationalities by government forces has been the main stumbling block to achievement of nationwide ceasefire and peace in the country”. Whether aggression was one-sided or not, it indicates that the USDP did not achieve the boost in credibility and popularity it had hoped for by delivering on the promised NCA amongst ethnic minorities. It remains to be seen whether the Burmese majority of the population will reward President Thein Sein for a hastily concluded NCA, signed with parties who were not at war with the government at the moment anyway.

The peace process influences elections in another way, too: Since war and conflict continue in Shan, Kachin and Kayin state, the Union Election Commission (UEC) realised its right to cancel the election in about 600 villages in these areas. There is a certain overlap with those ethnic groups not being part of the NCA. According to the Myanmar Times, the rate of vote cancellation is higher than in 2010 and will almost certainly affect millions of voters. Consequently, ethnic parties from these regions are likely to significantly underperform in the elections and not be adequately represented in parliament.

The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi: from "Asian Mandela" to pragmatic politician

While there are over 90 parties competing in over 1000 constituencies, the NLD is the most important competitor of the USDP. Given the situation of the country, both major parties are not involved in electoral competition featuring detailed policy discussion. As one participant put it recently at a think tank roundtable in Brussels, citizens of Myanmar do not only judge the five-year term of President Thein Sein, they also judge the last five decades in which the promise of development and peace has not been realised for Myanmar. Therefore the electoral campaigns evolve much more around the questions of continuity and change, and considerable importance is put on the personalities of the potential leaders themselves. Indeed, the NLD’s slogan is “Time for change”.

Led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD collected 81 per cent of the votes in the non-recognised elections in 1990 and won 43 of the 45 available seats in the 2012 by-elections. There are also indications that the USDP fears losing against the NLD, such as the recent USDP-backed attempt of postponing the elections allegedly due to flooding. Naturally, the military, does not favour a victory of the NLD, who was founded in opposition to the military rule. If the NLD would indeed collect two thirds of votes, it would command a majority despite the fixed 25 per cent of seats for the military.

It is to be recalled that Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the NLD, was put under house arrest for 15 years by the military and was only released in 2010. She herself is banned from standing for president due to her children holding a foreign nationality. But the fear of Aung San Suu Kyi still looms large as she is by far the most popular politician in the country. She has been reluctant to nominate a Spitzenkandidat for the NLD, which points to the fact that she could act as shadow president if her party wins most votes. If this is the case, it is likely that she will at least take on the powerful role of speaker of the House of Representatives, the country’s lower house. Perhaps the clearest indicator of the military's opposition to the NLD was the removal of the USDP’s ambitious candidate Shwe Mann. After Aung San Suu Kyi had called the parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann “an ally” the military stepped in and effectively declared President Thein Sein the USDP’s presidential candidate instead. However, Shwe Mann is politically alive and continuous to hold his influential position of parliamentary speaker - showcasing that the military is acting more carefully than before and is highly aware of the international community watching the elections closely.

But it is not certain that the NLD will win a landslide victory. In stark opposition to her father, Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi has not spoken out on the situation of the country’s minorities. In addition, she has alienated many minorities by putting up NLD candidates in the minority areas, decreasing chances for the ethnicity-based parties.

Refugees, internally-displaced people and the Rohingya, most of whom will not be able to vote, have also not been addressed during the campaign of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, even attracting criticism of the Dalai Lama. However, Myanmar's extremist Buddhist monks are very influential and speak out against Islam in openly hostile terms. There is not a single Muslim NLD candidate.

Adopting a strategy that ignores the rights of minorities could well be her biggest mistake in this election campaign. Not only does it hurt her credibility as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and questions her prior reputation as "Asian Mandela", it will also make it harder for her to achieve good deals in the political horse-trading that is likely following the elections. She herself says “I have always been a pragmatic politician, […] I have always said I don’t like to be called an icon, because icons do nothing except sit on the wall.” 

The Electoral Process

The power of the minorities stands and falls with their ability to form effective inter-ethnic coalitions. One third of Myanmar's population belongs to one of the over 130 ethnicities. Two-thirds of the about 90 parties running in the elections are based on ethnicity. 207 seats, thus 31 per cent of the joint assembly of parliament, is reserved for representatives from the seven states dominated by ethnic minorities; in addition, there are 29 seats for “national race representatives”. This indicates the potential power of the minorities and why they could be kingmakers for NLD or USDP. It also emphasises why the minorities did not welcome the NLD standing for candidacy in their states and regions.

Bearing with the minority issue, it is important to notice that Myanmar elections follow the first-past-the-post model. Therefore the minority parties’ chances of aggregating enough votes on all federal levels are even smaller.

Furthermore, while citizens vote for the two houses of parliament, the House of Representatives and the House of Nationalities, the president is indirectly elected. This will only happen after the new parliament convenes on 31 January 2016, a significant period of time for political horse-trading.

Both houses elect one presidential candidate, while another candidate is elected by the military representatives. The joint assembly of upper and lower house then elects a president from these three candidates. Current President Thein Sein is very likely to stand for president again, since he has earned himself the trust of the military, as could be seen in the ouster of Shwe Mann. Aung San Suu Kyi, as outlined above, cannot stand for candidacy and will only announce after the elections who will be her candidate. The elected candidate will be president for a term of five years. The two non-elected candidate become vice-presidents.

EU Observers

For the first time since Myanmar’s slow political opening, domestic and international election observers, including the European Union and the US Carter Center, are allowed at the elections. Importantly, many of them arrived way before the election takes place, noting problematic issues like the 500 000 Rohinyga who had their citizen’s card and therefore their right to vote cancelled just in time for the elections. There were also significant problems in compiling the list of voters, which put the burden of checking its accuracy on the voter and last but not least the imperfect advanced voting system. On election day fraud is possible since votes are counted manually. However, this time there will also be party representatives present, as well as the possibility of election observers stopping by. It might well take up to two weeks until the outcome of the election is declared, since votes first need to be aggregated at township, district, state and national level. A preliminary result can already be expected two days after the elections.

Conclusion

In the fragile political time until the new president is announced in 2016, with a far from comprehensive NCA, Myanmar – and its military - will have to stand its true test of peaceful power transition. To ensure that the elections will mark another milestone in Myanmar’s transition to a more open and democratic society, external actors like the EU need to continually engage the country also after the elections.