Reading Myanmar's 2020 Elections

by Tamas Wells (this article first appeared in Election Watch at the University of Melbourne)

An expected victory by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s November 8 elections will be significant, but the elections themselves, and the country, are beset with challenges.


As always, Myanmar has an abundance of political parties contesting, 93 parties in total. But the main contest in this election will be between the incumbent NLD, a number of ethnic minority parties, and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).


At the last election in 2015, the NLD won a landslide 77%  of seats, ethnic minority parties a little over 12%, and the USDP around 10%.


After the historic 2015 elections, many commentators suggested that ethnic minority populations had cast their votes for the NLD, in order to give the NLD the best chance of wresting power from the USDP.


Yet given the NLD’s travails over the last five years - with their failure to bring peace or substantially improve relations with ethnic minority populations - the main shift to watch for in these elections will be an increase in the percentage of seats won by ethnic parties. This could be crucial if it forces the NLD into a coalition arrangement, especially one with ethnic minority parties.


Free and fair elections?


Elections in 1990 and 2015 have shown the desire for Myanmar citizens to vote in the face of adversity. Even in the troubled military atmosphere of 1990, voter turnout was more than 70%.

By comparison, turnout in the last four US elections has hovered around 55%. But several challenges undermine the chances of a free and fair election on November 8.


The first is Covid-19. Until July, Myanmar had avoided widespread Covid-19 infection but in the last two months cases have begun to surge, with the country’s underfunded health system now detecting over 1,000 cases per day. At this stage the election is proceeding as planned, but gatherings on election day could easily be a deterrent for some voters or a trigger for new outbreaks.


Second is the context of instability and exclusion. Due to perceived security concerns, the Myanmar Union Election Commission recently decided to cancel voting entirely in 15 townships and in parts of 41 other ethnic minority townships across Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Mon and Karen States.


Some of these areas are sites of recent fighting between the Burmese military and the Arakan Army. And adding to the tensions was the recent news that three NLD election candidates had been abducted by the Arakan army.


Meanwhile, questions have been raised by ethnic minority parties in other parts of the country as to why relatively stable townships have been excluded from the vote and whether this exclusion by the NLD has been systematic.


Further, after brutal military and police operations against Muslim minorities in Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017, eight hundred thousand people, most of whom identify as Rohingya, were forced to cross the border to Bangladesh and now live in refugee camps.


Many others are still in the country, displaced from their homes or living in government detention camps. Along with other internally displaced people in the north and east of the country, there are millions from minority groups who will be excluded from voting in this election.


Deeper challenges


Before it even begins, therefore, there are considerable questions about whether these elections can be considered free, fair or even safe. We must also be aware that Myanmar has a deeper set of challenges which this election will not solve.


Whoever wins the election, Burmese military officers will still retain 25% of seats in the Myanmar parliament. And beyond parliament, the tentacles of military influence still extend deep into the economy and politics.


Meanwhile, the election result will be unlikely to change the realities for those in regions of active civil war or for Muslim minorities. Deep seated ethnic and religious divides in Myanmar society will require decades of healing.


Finally, many areas of the country still remain mired in poverty with citizens often faced with makeshift systems of education and health.


Ultimately, the temptation for analysts from Australia, Europe or North America, will be to judge Myanmar’s elections against a yardstick of established liberal democracy. What can sometimes be ignored though is that Myanmar’s political elites, including those who are pro-democracy, may not always have the same kind of ‘democracy’ in mind.


It is not just practical challenges delaying Myanmar from reaching a finish line of Western style liberal democracy, there may be an entirely different race taking place. Rather than looking to London or Washington as a democratic light on the hill, Myanmar elites and citizens are often looking to Singapore, Seoul or Shenzhen - which have their own contested takes on ‘democracy’. As much as we might not like or even understand those takes, they may be more relevant to visions of a future Myanmar.


The Myanmar election, however flawed, will likely see the return of the NLD for another five years of government. Whether or not the NLD can make progress in relation to the country’s deep social divisions and poverty, remains to be seen.


Image: shutterstock