Could Myanmar’s Elections Devolve into Disorder?
Aung San Suu Kyi in a meeting with former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton in November 2011.

Could Myanmar’s Elections Devolve into Disorder?

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At a recent European Union sponsored “democracy day” event in Yangon, the European Union’s Ambassador Roland Kobia enthused about Myanmar’s move from “bullets to ballots.”

The optimistic address was consistent with the West’s strong backing for the country’s recent shift from military to quasi-civilian rule and enduring hope that general elections on November 8 will credibly complete the transition to full democracy.

A month into the campaign season, however, it has become apparent the highly anticipated polls will be riddled with irregularities, similar in many respects to the rigged 2010 elections that catapulted military-linked United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) candidates to power. Those circumscribed polls, boycotted by the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) pro-democracy opposition, were openly panned by the European Union and the United States as a sham.

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Five years later, after lifting or suspending their sanctions, the European Union and the United States are heavily invested in a legitimate democratic transition. Both were expected to pour in significant aid, investment and military assistance in the handover to what many observers earlier assumed would be an overwhelmingly elected NLD-led government. But as the playing field tilts in favor of the incumbent USDP, how much electoral fraud and manipulation will the West countenance in endorsing the result as sufficiently free and fair?

Local media reports predict widespread problems at the polls. Flawed voter lists, despite three rounds of revisions, threaten to disenfranchise as many as 20 million out of 32 million eligible voters. Software used by the Union Election Commission (UEC) to compile voter lists was designed to process only 10 million names, according to news reports. The UEC has tried to shift responsibility to voters to ensure the accuracy of their respective lists, a tactic some see as aimed at reducing voter turnout in targeted constituencies.

Flawed lists could also open the way for manipulated advance voting, as critics claim the USDP employed to strategic effect at the 2010 polls. A recent Eleven Media report noted that while there were 27.3 million registered voters at the last election, advance votes in favor of the USDP bumped the total vote count to over 29 million for the lower house of parliament. Other observers believe a new stamping procedure for casting ballots will confuse rural voters and give the UEC huge discretion in disqualifying votes for the opposition as mismarked.

The UEC’s competence and independence is in doubt. Its chairman, Tin Aye, a 47-year military veteran and former USDP parliamentarian, openly acknowledged in an interview in June with The Irrawaddy his preference for the USDP to win the polls. His commission has imposed vague restrictions on campaign speeches and printed materials, barring (without defining) “defamation” of the government and military with the threat of sedition charges. The NLD earlier placed a gag order on its candidates from speaking to the media to avoid arbitrary disqualifications. Tin Aye has also said in press interviews that the military could stage a coup if the election results in instability.

The USDP’s campaign has benefited from the power of incumbency and access to state resources. While many analysts earlier predicted the USDP would merely aim to mitigate its losses at the ballot box, it’s clear now the military-backed party intends to win and retain power. Because the military is legally allotted a 25 percent bloc in parliament, the USDP only needs 26 percent of the remaining seats to form a majority government and select the next president. In such a scenario, Thein Sein would most likely be appointed to a second term.

Despite decades of military mismanagement, Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has shed some of the previous junta’s baggage. For instance, the USDP was viewed more favorably than the NLD at “improving the economy” in an opinion poll conducted by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute from December 2013 to February 2014. (Respondents ranked unemployment as the country’s biggest woe.) Those perceptions were no doubt influenced by the flood of cash the party’s micro-finance arm – the country’s largest such lending institution – has pumped into rural areas under Thein Sein’s watch. Critics have viewed the outlays as veiled vote-buying.

Buoyed by a sweeping by-election victory in April 2012, NLD stalwarts believe the party is poised for a historic win that officially ends over six decades of military and de facto military rule. Suu Kyi has told Yangon-based diplomats she expects the NLD to win as much as 80 percent of the vote, higher than the nearly 60 percent the party garnered at the 1990 elections the military subsequently voided. The NLD is campaigning largely on Suu Kyi’s past image as a pro-democracy icon and daughter of a national independence hero, symbols they hope will outshine the party’s lack of governing experience and proven leaders.

There are widespread perceptions, however, that Suu Kyi and the NLD have misplayed their hand since re-entering the political mainstream in 2012. That includes pronouncements and positions that have alienated her party’s natural allies and potential coalition partners in ethnic areas. Suu Kyi recently overruled party strategists who recommended the NLD not contest seats against ethnic-based parties in their territories to avoid splitting the vote against the USDP. Suu Kyi countered that a failure to field candidates in areas contested by the USDP would be a sign of weakness, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Without strong popular support in ethnic areas, representing around 30 percent of parliament’s seats, it’s unlikely that the NLD will be able to repeat its 1990 landslide win. Even if the NLD were to win every seat in the central and southern Burman majority areas, where it will compete head-to-head with the USDP for 44 percent of parliament’s seats, it still wouldn’t be enough to form a majority government. That, too, is an unlikely scenario given likely top-down commands to the country’s 500,000-strong standing army and military-controlled bureaucracy to cast their ballots for the USDP.

There are already signs that the NLD could contest the result if, as seems likely, the party underperforms Suu Kyi’s lofty expectations. NLD co-founder and potential presidential candidate Tin Oo recently called on party supporters in a campaign speech to be vigilant against invalid and phantom advance votes on election day. He said inaccurate voter lists had already “made people uncomfortable and I understand why they are concerned.” Other NLD leaders have hinted there could be “disturbances” if its supporters are blocked from casting their ballots.

Much will rely on Suu Kyi’s personal assessment of the process and result. It’s highly unlikely Suu Kyi will graciously accept an outright USDP win amid signs of systematic fraud and manipulation. It’s less clear how Suu Kyi would react to a result where the NLD outpaces the USDP but is unable to form a government because it falls short of a majority. In that scenario, the USDP could win just enough seats to form a government in league with the military’s 25 percent allotment of appointees even though the NLD wins the overall percentage vote.

Some analysts already speculate the European Union and United States would prefer the NLD accept rather than contest such a contentious result. Assumptions that the West would take its cue from Suu Kyi in determining whether the process should be deemed free and fair lag the prevailing political reality that U.S. and European interests have been well-served under Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration. Any major disruptions contesting the poll process or result would inevitably lure out troops and provide pretext for the military to stage a coup on the grounds that the country is not yet ready for full democracy.

Such an outcome represents the worst case scenario for the European Union and the United States, not to mention the country’s disenfranchised voters. Yet it’s unclear how the 70-year-old Suu Kyi would respond to possible Western pressure to accept a partial victory that allows the USDP to maintain power against the popular will. Some analysts believe U.S. pressure nudged Suu Kyi and the NLD to contest the 2012 by-elections and enter mainstream politics in a position of parliamentary weakness with the promise that the 2015 polls would be free and fair. Whether she is again willing to subordinate idealism for expediency will likely be the difference between order and instability in post-election Myanmar.

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