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Myanmar elections 2020 - why ethnic parties may be kingmakers

by Michael Breen

As a comparative political scientist, elections are one of the most exciting events to observe, and give rise to much speculation.

In Myanmar, this is especially true, given the great uncertainty and the profound consequences. We plan on running a series of election blogs over the next month to initiate some reflection and discussion on key issues and prospects.

As we know, the NLD were elected in 2015 with much fanfare. It heralded, so the commentators believed a new democratic era and a resolution of longstanding conflict.

But five years later, many members of ethnic nationality communities – indeed, many democratic reformers – are deeply dissatisfied. Promises of federalism have not been substantially progressed. Conflict has continued and even restarted in some ethnic states. There have been crackdowns on freedom of speech and other democratic rights. And the NLD defended the military against allegations of abuses against Rohingya People in Rakhine State.

Normally, future (voting) behaviour can be predicted on the basis of past behaviour. But in 2010, the NLD did not compete. In 2015, the ethnic parties fared poorly as the NLD was “seen as the only party that could bring about change on a national scale” and it had promised federalism. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic may dramatically affect voter turnout, or even result in a postponement.

Yet there are virtually no observers or commentators on Myanmar politics that foresee any party other than the NLD winning the most votes.

But with seats reserved for the military, a majority of votes may not translate into real power. The military has 25% of the seats in each parliament. This means, the NLD could win up to two-thirds of the available seats and still not be able to form government.

As I see it, there are three basic scenarios: 1. The NLD maintains its support, wins more than two thirds of the available seats, selects the president and forms government 2. The USDP wins more than one third of the available seats, aligns with the military to select the president, and form government 3. The ethnic parties boost their vote preventing USDP or NLD winning enough seats to form government on their own, necessitating a coalition or other alliance.

The NLD has said that it will not enter into any alliances with other parties before the election. But it is aware that it may need to after the election.

The ethnic parties are predicted to improve their vote.

Ethnic parties have not only increased in relevance, given the NLD’s broken promises, but they are also more attuned to strategies like preventing vote splitting.

And it will not take much to turn them into kingmakers.

If they can hold the balance of power and make a choice to work with the NLD or the USDP to form government, then they will be in a very strong bargaining position, and will have the ability to set conditions on their support.

Whether or not the ethnic parties can or will work together in this is uncertain. Some parties are more aligned with the NLD, others with the USDP. But the balance in the parliament post 2020 might provide the best opportunity in years for ethnic parties to force real change, especially on federalism, whoever ‘wins’ the election.


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