Myanmar is about to have an election in which it feels little is at stake. Most expect continuity, with a National League for Democracy administration made in the image of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi picking up from where it left off. This is despite more than more than 90 political parties competing for the votes of a hugely diverse electorate.
If the election is to be considered a milestone, it is not in journey towards a liberal democracy that protects minority interests and tolerates dissent. Instead it marks the consolidation of a curious type of hybrid regime shared between a monolithic political party and the armed forces, both of which are dominated by the Bamar, the ethnic group that accounts for roughly two-thirds of the population. Under this arrangement, the military has autonomy and can wage war against ethnic minority militias as and when it likes.
This arrangement, introduced by the former military junta in 2011 as part of its transition to “discipline-flourishing democracy,” has proven stable. And despite its very clear limitations, it has delivered personal and political freedoms and economic growth that few thought possible a decade ago.
It is also an arrangement in which the civilian arm of government, embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi, is increasingly sure of itself. Though decried internationally, the state counselor’s defense of Myanmar at the Hague-based International Court of Justice in December last year was a significant power play – and a wildly popular move in mainstream Myanmar society. She has also been front and center of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this crisis, the military has played only a supporting role, and a scarcely visible one at that.
But to say that the gains in freedom and prosperity have not been evenly shared would be a gross understatement. To be a villager in northern Rakhine State in Myanmar’s west, where the military and insurgent Arakan Army are locked in the heaviest fighting the country has seen in decades, is to be in a far worse plight than 10 years ago; and the persecution of the Rohingya has increased in lockstep with the extension of democratic rights to the majority.
And herein lies the key to the puzzle: The suffering of these minority groups is not evidence of Myanmar “backsliding” into dictatorship, but of its evolution into an illiberal, majoritarian democracy, in which the government is increasingly responsive to majority demands, but where the only protected minority interest is the military, which still controls key security ministries and retains a quarter of all parliamentary seats.
There is some truth to the line that the military tricked the international community into falling for a shadow-play of democratic change. The junta knew democratic reforms were the price of sanctions relief, and the West’s eagerness for a good news story on the front line of geopolitical rivalry with China helped lower the bar for progress. And all the while, the military has cynically protected its interests, including its vast business empire. But to insist that all we are seeing is a democratic mirage is to overlook what is really happening in the country. It also betrays a naive idea of how democracy plays out in a deeply divided society, where the basic terms of national identity and power-sharing between a Bamar center and an ethnic minority periphery remain unsettled.
It is with this illiberal democratic trajectory in mind that we should view the upcoming election, which, in terms of a contest between political forces, is really two elections.
One will take place in the Bamar-majority regions of central Myanmar, where there is no credible opposition to the NLD. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, created by the junta in 2010 as a vehicle for controlling civilian politics, is in an even weaker position than in the last general election in 2015, when it was the incumbent party. Carrying the baggage of military rule, with all its cruelty and incompetence, its nationalist postures have failed to gain much traction with the public. Some new national parties have sprouted up in the last five years, several of them founded by disaffected members of the NLD and USDP, but they lack name recognition beyond an educated elite and are likely to be clobbered by Myanmar’s unforgiving first-past-the-post electoral system.
Moreover, a vote for the NLD is a largely a vote for the personal rule of Aung San Suu Kyi, and her popularity has only increased after her defense of Myanmar at the ICJ and her reassuring presence amid the pandemic. Since the onset of COVID-19, she has addressed the public several times each week, imparting rousing messages of unity and perseverance.
The other election will take place in the ethnic minority regions that are ranged along the country’s borders – referred to as “states,” despite being functionally identical to the Bamar-majority “regions.” In this contest the outcome is, by contrast, hard to predict. This is because many of the parties representing ethnic minority groups, which were heavily divided and mostly fared poorly in the 2015 election, have merged and gained considerable momentum ahead of the vote. Ethnic minority civil society activists that helped the NLD in 2015 have thrown their weight behind these unified parties and are in many cases running as their candidates. They stand to capitalize on growing anger and disillusionment with the NLD government, which has dealt with ethnic demands insensitively and has largely appeared to side with the military in its wars with ethnic armed groups.
This trend is not uniform, and ethnic parties’ chances will be frustrated in some areas because substantial internal migration has redrawn the demography in several of the ethnic states. Nonetheless, once the results are in, we can expect the electoral map of the borderlands to look very different.
This may seem like a significant shift in Myanmar politics, but unfortunately, it is the election in the central Bamar regions – in which the NLD is poised to win a landslide – that matters to who holds the reins of power.
The cancellation of voting in some ethnic minority areas, announced on October 16, has been condemned as an attempt by the NLD-appointed election commission to deny seats to ethnic parties and engineer another landslide victory for the ruling party. The commission cited vague security grounds for its decision, whose biggest effect was to wipe out most of Rakhine’s electoral constituencies and disenfranchise 73 percent of its 1.6 million voters, while preserving constituencies in the south of the state where the NLD is stronger.
But regardless of whether the cancellations amount to gerrymandering, the deck was already stacked against ethnic parties due to the structure of Myanmar’s electoral system. This system creates a winner-takes-all contest, in which smaller parties are easily sidelined from government regardless of how well they perform in certain areas of the country.
One crucial feature of the system is that constituencies for seats in the lower house of parliament are based on township boundaries. Myanmar’s geography is carved up into 330 townships, and a much larger portion of them are in the Bamar regions – reflecting, and in fact slightly under-compensating for, their bigger share of the national population. While seats in the upper house are balanced to ensure equal representation for the ethnic states, the chamber is almost half the size of the lower house.
This matters because the president is chosen by the newly elected members of both the lower and upper houses, who will convene in a joint-session early next year. The vote is a simple first-past-the-post race between three presidential candidates: one each nominated by the lower and upper houses, and the third nominated by the military.
The first-past-the-post system amplifies the number of seats taken by the party that leads in the Bamar regions, making it even easier for it to pick the president. However, that party does not even need a majority of all seats in both houses to do so – it just needs to occupy the largest bloc in parliament. There is no need to form an alliance with other parties, so long as the party’s presidential pick attracts more votes than the other candidates, and any alliance that is formed need not last beyond that one parliamentary session.
This is because, once a party holds the presidency, it controls almost all aspects of government outside of the three ministries – home, defense and border affairs – that are reserved for the military. The president makes virtually all appointments, including to the local governments of ethnic states. While a president can be impeached by parliament, this requires a two-thirds majority vote by members of both houses.
A seat at the high table for ethnic parties therefore depends on the magnanimity of the president, or the party that controls that office. Could a new NLD president perhaps try to mend bridges with alienated minorities by appointing ethnic party members to lead ministries or state governments? The NLD took this approach to the USDP after the 2015 election, appointing several of the former ruling party’s members as ministers in a gesture of “national reconciliation.” But the NLD has previously been reluctant to extend such gestures to ethnic parties, and Rakhine State provides the most sobering case study.
In 2015, Rakhine voters elected the Rakhine nationalist Arakan National Party to a majority of seats in the Rakhine State parliament, not including the appointed military MPs. The newly installed NLD president effectively disregarded this result by picking a chief minister from the NLD to lead the state government. This was a repeat of what the USDP president did after the 2010 election, and the message it sent to the Rakhine public – that their votes would have no bearing on how they were governed – undoubtedly helped to feed support for armed revolution under the banner of the Arakan Army.
It is easy to foresee the same disillusionment sweeping other ethnic minority regions, such as Kachin State in the north and Mon State in the southeast, if local ethnic parties perform well but are denied executive power. These areas have a decades-long tradition of armed insurgency driven by systematic political marginalization, and the exclusionary nature of Myanmar’s electoral system will increase the appeal of insurgency to a new generation.
The offending features of the system are largely written into the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which can only be changed with the military’s consent, since amendments require votes from more than 75 percent of MPs in a parliament where the military is guaranteed 25 percent. However, it has recently been the NLD, not the military, that has stood in the way of constitutional change that would increase meaningful representation for minorities.
In March of this year, the NLD used its majority in parliament to vote down a constitutional amendment bill, supported by the military, USDP and several ethnic parties, that would see chief ministers chosen by state and regional parliaments, rather than appointed by the president. This would have allowed successful ethnic parties to govern their own states with a local mandate. The military and USDP may have merely wanted to dilute the power of their political enemy, the NLD, but the ruling party’s obstruction of the amendment is difficult to square with its campaign promise to deliver “federal democracy.” For the party, the prospect of losing administrative power in ethnic states where it has grown unpopular was clearly too high a price to pay for decentralization.
This episode gives the lie to the common NLD line that, when it comes to delivering federal policies, however piecemeal, the NLD’s hands are tied by the military’s veto on constitutional change – and that ethnic minorities just need to be patient while the NLD painstakingly engineers the military’s exit from politics. It has instead become clear that, beyond the constitution, one of the greatest barriers to resolving minority grievances comes in the form of Myanmar’s largest democratic force, the NLD.
The party can easily disregard the demands of minority groups because “the people,” in the form of the majority, have spoken at the ballot box, and minorities have failed to heed demands for “unity” in the political battle against the military. It is a sign of how Myanmar’s problems are increasingly those of democracy, not of a contrary system of government.
Despite its deep flaws, we’re approaching an election that will in all likelihood deliver a government with a strong popular mandate – something that would be difficult to say about neighboring countries like Thailand or Cambodia, let alone Vietnam and Laos, one-party states that are nonetheless embraced by many Western democracies. The international community will be obliged to recognize the result of this weekend’s election, and the majority in Myanmar will be happy, having elected a government of their choosing. The unrepresented minority, meanwhile, will be ignored.
Ben Dunant is managing editor at Frontier Myanmar, a fortnightly news magazine in Yangon. He has worked in Myanmar since 2014.