Myanmar’s Elections: A Testing Road Ahead

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Myanmar’s Elections: A Testing Road Ahead

The road ahead will be a stress-test for the engagement of the international community supporting reform.

Myanmar’s Elections: A Testing Road Ahead
Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

It’s Saturday afternoon in Meiktila, a township in Mandalay, a state in central Myanmar. We are just two weeks away from the landmark November 8 general elections. The premises of the local election sub-commission are bustling with officials who hide their exhaustion behind their smiles. At one given moment of this hot afternoon, local party representatives will meet with the chairman. Outside the room, members of local ward and village sub-commissions collect education material for voters. Hundreds of ballot boxes downstairs are loaded onto a truck, off to the most remote villages. Candidates are not at their town headquarters as they are busy canvassing voters out in the villages. By chance, I run into one candidate as she returns home for some rest, a current member of the Upper House of the Pyidaungsu Hlutaw for the National Democratic Force (a rara avis as just 32 out of the total 664 representatives are women). Except for a few torn-down billboards, she reports a smooth campaign so far.

She is one of the 6,074 candidates who, for the past six weeks, competes in over a thousand of constituencies for the preferences of more than 33 million eligible voters. Voters who are asking themselves whether things will change after this election. How much closer will their ballots bring them to ruling their country on their own terms?

Expectations run both high and low. According to preliminary results of an Asian Barometer Survey issued in July most Myanmar respondents hope that the 2015 elections will be free and fair, but most also believed a more democratic country would be a reality only ten years from now. The opposition National League of Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi initially didn’t want to wait that long when they, in the context of a two-year constitutional review, organized a five million-people petition in 2014 to remove constitutional provisions giving the military veto on constitutional amendments and bans citizens with foreign children to become president. In July this year, a majority of lawmakers, including members of ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, could not overcome the military veto with the same purpose. With NLD now in the race, they have set out to achieve a clear mandate in the polls that could prompt rapid changes in the composition of government, shifting power to more closely resemble the will of the people.

I ask the candidate in Meiktila whether the elections will bring change and more democracy to her country. She assents, adding “Some, but something is better than nothing.”

Her moderation is no coincidence. She hands me Atumashi (“The Unique”) featuring her image on the cover, under the slogan Nationalism is First Priority. The newsletter is issued by Ma-Ba-Tha (Upper Myanmar), the nationalist movement made up of monks and lay Buddhists. The group’s leaders have held rallies to celebrate and praise President Thein Sein and other politicians that supported the passing of four bills they drafted while calling on voters not to endorse parties and candidates that do not share their stance on religion. These bills restrict religious conversion and interfaith marriage. In an election supposed to discuss the extent and pace of democratic change, religion has been at the center of the debate.

Measuring Democratic Progress 

Given the complexity of Myanmar’s political climate, is something really better than nothing? In the rearview mirror of its recent authoritarian past, the very holding of credible elections will represent a tremendous achievement. Through the eyes of the citizens though, there is a long way to go. Even if credible, elections will put the country just at the starting point of a long and difficult process. On the road towards a functioning democracy, a number of tougher tests await. Creating greater space and influence for civilians, wealth- and power-sharing with the different ethnic groups, some yet contesting the state’s authority, as well as genuine inclusion for them to coexist in peace are just some of the challenges.

If democratic progress is to be measured by what Myanmar citizens, their political, social, and state actors want for themselves, then the international community should commit to an honest stocktaking of the country’s achievements, and take a bolder look at the work that remains to be done. In the years to come, we cannot afford to miss any opportunities to support domestic dialogue and compromise that lock in gains made by democratic reforms, and break new ground.

The aspirations of all democratic forces are genuine. Although they differ in the pace and reach of the desired reforms, none can be disregarded. This international community should remember that Myanmar is just emerging out of decades of authoritarian rule, political and economic isolation, repression of dissent and elections that were, at best, boycotted. The balance of four years of reforms must be examined from that perspective when supporting the country’s journey beyond the elections.

Trust, Inclusion and Compromise

The first lesson is the need for trust. Memories of nullified (1990), sham (2008), or boycotted (2010) polls are very present in the mind of the citizens. Despite having more and better safeguards to ensure that their ballots to be freely cast and counted this time around, there is mistrust in what elections have to offer.

Independent observers have reported on efforts by the electoral administration to introduce concrete procedural improvements with the support of the international community. The improvements include transparency and the digitization of the voter registry, allowing access to polling stations to more than 11,000 national and international election observers for the first time, alternative ways of resolving disputes between political parties, and voter education efforts actively supported by civil society groups.

The legal framework for elections presents some shortcomings that are yet to be addressed, in particular to enfranchise several thousand voters of either ethnic or religious minority background, residing overseas on illegal migrant status. There is also a need to publicize the numbers of votes cast in advance inside military barracks, to better explain the cancellation of elections in locations affected by conflict, and to reaffirm the neutrality of officials with access to the extensive state networks and resources in the campaign. Those who keep abusing religious sentiments must also be prevented from interfering with the process.

Efforts to address such shortcomings have been tried, not always successfully. A window of opportunity to improve the legal framework shall open in the incoming legislature, likely to be more politically diverse and reform-oriented. An informed dialogue and compromise must enable improvements to the future legal framework of elections. Only trust will make compromise possible.

As the landscape becomes politically more diverse, compromise will be in high demand. The number of parties competing in the election has increased from 31 in 2010 to 91 in 2015.  There is almost triple the number of candidates today; 6,074 compared to 2,296 in 1990 and 3,143 candidates in 2010. Furthermore, women hopefuls (801) are now 13 per cent of the total number of candidates (compared to 4 per cent in 1990 and 3 per cent in 2010). The number of ethnic or religious minority parties is now 59, more than 1990 (35) and 2010 (25). At least half of the total number of candidates are either nominated by one ethnic or religious minority party, or even if nominated by other parties, identify as part of at least one ethnic minority group.

Compromise should also be at the service of making diversity truly inclusive. Restrictive citizenship and documentation policies have resulted in the disenfranchisement of voters, as in the case of those who identify themselves as Rohingya Muslims, also called Bengali by the government. To add questions to the future inclusiveness in the democratic process, an aggressive anti-Muslim rhetoric promoted by some leaders has become more noticeable in the public sphere and very prominent in the campaign, clearly trespassing into the political sphere. This rhetoric deepens rather than heals the fresh wounds of horrendous communal violence that left hundreds of people dead and thousands displaced as recently as 2012 and 2013. In Meitkila, at least 44 people lost their lives and several hundred their houses in March 2013.

Despite the limits of an otherwise increased plurality, the diversity of different ethnic identities and interests in the political sphere has prompted fears that it will make for a fragmented political system. That should not surprise anyone – Myanmar is a country profusely diverse in ethnicities too. The potential of fragmentation could be overcome with dialogue and compromise, which can provide the dynamism and space that political reforms need.

This will become evident when parties and leaders prepare themselves to come to terms with the results of the November 8 elections. The outcome could upset the expectations of ethnic parties, the NLD, and USDP alike. Although there is no reliable way to forecast the results, there is a good chance that the elections will draw a new political map. Negotiations to form a government would then not only be necessary, but also onerous. The prospect of a reformist government may thus very well depend on the willingness to enter into a broad and comprehensive political understanding between likely inexperienced winners and powerful losers. This test will shed light on whether a culture of dialogue and compromise can take root in post-election Myanmar.

In parallel to the formation of government, the country and the international community will look with expectation to set whether armed groups, the government, and the army make daring concessions in agreeing to a framework for political dialogue. These negotiations follow the ceasefire agreement they inked on October 15, with the European Union, China, and Japan as witnesses. Efforts to attract the signing of the seven other armed groups need to be intensified. Not least because their military might casts a shadow over the prospects of peace.

To realize the historical value of this signing, one just has to look first at the length of the war. Some signatories have waged war for decades, one of them, the Karen National Union for more than 60 years. Second, consider the fact that issues such as federalism and the sharing of wealth flowing from natural resources – until recently, taboos for all but the most radical reformers – are now on the table. Although it will take time, constitutional change is now a solid prospect for which the country, and particular the Tatmadaw, needs to get ready.

Succeeding in creating a framework for political dialogue before the December 15 deadline will signal progress, and make the negotiating table once again attractive to the remaining groups.

The Road Ahead

Five years on, the political opening has not changed the constitution, and while peace is taking time, elections are not perfect yet. Today, however, there is at last debate on constitutional reform, those waging war still talk peace, and elections are fully contested.

The pace and the extent of democratic reform have not been to the satisfaction of all. Whether reform has faltered or stalled, elections will give reformists from all sides a boost to emerge stronger. Elections will not shift all power to reformists, but will give them initiative, so far elusive.

Days ahead of the polls, countries and other international actors engaging with the process feel compelled to choose between judging either procedural improvements or effective outcomes. Yet both form and substance are much needed, to help clear the road for reformists.

The international community supporting democracy in Myanmar will swiftly set its sights on the road ahead. Next stop, the constitution, nesting both lock and keys to further democratic change. Meanwhile, election day, November 8, and its aftermath will reveal whether all passengers are onboard. But we can be certain that the road ahead by no means resembles the evenly paved, free-flowing, stress-free highways of the new Naypyidaw; it looks more like the congested, nerve-wracking roads of the old Yangon, and the bumpy and dusty streets of Meiktila.

Jorge Valladares is the Head of Mission in Myanmar for the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). International IDEA is an intergovernmental organization based in Stockholm, Sweden, working to support democracy worldwide. In Myanmar, International IDEA has been working in support of inclusive, democratic elections through capacity assistance to the Union Election Commission, civil society, media and other electoral stakeholders. This is part of the Support to Electoral Processes and Democracy (STEP Democracy) project, a partnership with the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD), Democracy Reporting International (DRI), and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and four local organizations, Myanmar Egress, Hornbill Organization, the Scholar Institute and Naushawng Education Network, which are implementing voter education programs with FNF with the support of the European Union. In partnership with the Parliamentary Centre, Canada, International IDEA works to build the capacity of Myanmar’s parliamentary oversight and budgetary management roles.