Majority Rules in Myanmar’s Second Democratic Election [EN/MY]

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De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to win Myanmar’s 8 November elections. The next test will be whether the result entrenches minority grievances that fuel armed conflict or revives reform efforts to give minorities a fairer deal alongside the Burman Buddhist majority.

What’s new? Myanmar’s 8 November elections will be a test of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity, and a referendum on her achievements, amid a public health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19. A change in government is unlikely, but the results may exacerbate minority grievances and armed conflict.

Why does it matter? Myanmar’s electoral system concentrates political power in the hands of the military and the Burman majority, even in areas where ethnic minorities are more numerous. The history of Burman domination of minorities is a major driver of Myanmar’s armed conflicts. Elections look set to entrench rather than ease that dynamic.

What should be done? Long-term efforts are needed to reform the electoral system to deliver fairer outcomes and amend the constitution to end the military’s political role. Recent attempts at both have failed. Meanwhile, the future government should use its executive powers to appoint ethnic party leaders to head local administrations in minority areas.

I. Overview

Myanmar goes to the polls on 8 November in the country’s second democratic election since the end of military rule in 2011, amid a serious wave of coronavirus infections. Aung San Suu Kyi remains extremely popular with the Burman Buddhist majority, who appear likely to propel her National League for Democracy (NLD) to a second landslide victory. But while the polls constitute an important step in consolidating electoral democracy in a country long associated with dictatorship, a first-past-the-post electoral system and a concentration of seats in the central Burman regions mean that minorities will again have limited representation. The Rohingya are almost completely excluded from participating. The results will likely amplify disaffection with electoral politics among minorities and could in turn stoke the country’s numerous armed conflicts. Pending vital but difficult electoral reform, the future government should use its executive powers to ensure that ethnic minorities have a greater say in their own governance and tackle systematic discrimination against the Rohingya, who are denied crucial rights.

The polls will gauge public opinion toward Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party in its fifth year in office, at a time when the country is reeling from the economic impact of COVID-19 and a surge in cases since mid-August. The government and election commission decided to push ahead with elections as scheduled, in spite of the public health risks and calls by some opposition parties to postpone the balloting. Many citizens are also questioning the government’s ability to deliver electricity, jobs, a more equitable economy and – in ethnic minority areas – peace.

These issues appear unlikely to reduce the NLD’s margin of victory, however. Aung San Suu Kyi is revered by most of the Burman Buddhist majority, a status she has consolidated through her personal defence of Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, where it faced genocide charges for the violent expulsion of more than 750,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh beginning in 2016. Her very visible leadership of the country’s COVID-19 response has further burnished her image. The country also lacks an effective national opposition party, with the military-established Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the NLD’s main adversary, having failed to rebrand itself to appeal to voters.

While there is unlikely to significant ballot fraud, the electoral process has seen many flaws, in part because of a compromised and weak election commission that has shown little sensitivity in dealing with opposition parties, civil society and the enormous challenges posed by the pandemic. Rohingya disenfranchisement, and the armed conflicts in Rakhine State and elsewhere that have led to poll cancellations, will also mar the elections’ credibility for the communities concerned as well as international observers. In Rakhine State, there is a risk that cancellations will trigger further armed conflict or political violence.

In many ways, though, the election’s aftermath will be more important than its results. A poor performance for the national opposition will surprise no one, yet the atmosphere will likely be fraught with allegations of unfair incumbent advantage, complaints that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 response measures coming in the way of campaigning. Parties representing ethnic minorities are also expressing high hopes that they can secure a larger bloc of seats, potentially becoming kingmakers. But the first-past-the-post electoral system – particularly ill-suited to Myanmar demographics – combined with a preponderance of seats in the Burman heartland, means that ethnic parties will likely not do as well as they expect.

Such an outcome will confirm many ethnic minority parties and voters in their view that they are structurally excluded from fair representation – more so because the constitution reserves an automatic 25 per cent of seats for the military. Thus, even if the election is moderately well run, with few violent incidents, its outcome may nevertheless be corrosive for peace and inclusivity. If minority people lose faith in electoral politics, some will be more likely to resort to insurgency, putting further strain on an already moribund peace process.