Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) looks set for a resounding win in Myanmar’s election, the second relatively free contest since the end of direct military rule.
On November 8, voters across the country lined up in long, socially distanced lines to cast their votes, many also wearing face masks to guard against COVID-19 infections, which spiked on the eve of Myanmar’s two-month election campaign.
As of press time, the Union Election Commission (UEC) was yet to release full official results, but early indications pointed to strong support for NLD. After the polls closed, hundreds of the party’s supporters gathered in front of the party’s headquarters in Yangon, decked out in the party’s red fighting peacock insignia, to celebrate the expected victory.
More than 90 parties competed for seats in the bicameral parliament, and a total of 5,643 candidates stood for election across 1,119 constituencies in federal and state/regional legislatures.
In a video message posted on Facebook a few days ahead of the election, Aung San Suu Kyi implored citizens to venture out to cast their ballots. “Every single voter is writing their own history, this election’s history and our country’s history,” she said.
The Nobel laureate was no doubt hoping for a repeat of 2015, when the NLD romped to a lopsided victory against the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military’s senescent proxy. At that election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party picked up 255 of the 330 seats up for election in the Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house), and 135 of 168 seats in the Amyotha Hluttaw (upper house).
A repeat seemed very much on the cards as the first results began to trickle out on November 9, the main question being whether the NLD would maintain its two-thirds majority of elected seats in the parliament. Under Myanmar’s constitution, which reserves a quarter of the seats in both houses of parliament for the military, this is necessary to guarantee a party the ability to select the president and form government alone.
On November 9, the party’s spokesperson Dr. Myo Nyunt estimated that the party had won more than 322 parliamentary seats in both houses, giving the party the majority necessary to form the next government.
Official results pending, the result shapes up as another resounding vote of confidence in Aung San Suu Kyi, who despite her plummeting international reputation, remains staggeringly popular in Myanmar’s ethnic Burman heartland, a reverence that borders on worship.
Yet the elections are unlikely to do much to heal Myanmar’s deep religious and ethnic divides. As I have noted previously, Myanmar’s electoral system concentrates political power in the hands of the military and the Burman majority, a major driver of Myanmar’s history of armed conflict.
While she is revered by her fellow ethnic Burmans, Aung San Suu Kyi is much less popular in outlying regions of the country where ethnic minority groups have been fighting for autonomy since independence. At the last election, ethnic-based parties joined with the NLD to ensure victory against the USDP, but disillusioned with the NLD, chose to go their own way in 2020. While ethnic-based parties are likely to pick up extra seats in regional legislatures, the constitution allows the central government to appoint chief ministers for each of the states and regions.
Last month, the UEC angered opposition parties when it canceled voting in significant parts of Shan and Rakhine states, due to ongoing conflict and instability in those regions. However, critics of the move alleged that the cancellations were politically selective, disadvantaging ethnic minority parties that have been critical of the government. The decision, which has effectively disenfranchised more than 1.5 million people, is more likely to entrench resentment and fuel conflict than do the opposite.
The election also saw the mass disenfranchisement of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority. A brutal 2017 counterinsurgency campaign by Myanmar’s army drove more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh, a campaign that has drawn accusations of genocide. Neither those refugees, nor Rohingya remaining in internal displacement camps in Rakhine State, have been able to vote.
In Burman majority regions, Aung San Suu Kyi’s staunch defense of Myanmar against international charges of genocide has only burnished her goddess-like status, betraying the close overlap between the adoration of “Mother Suu,” as she is often termed by her supporters, and Burman ethnonationalism.
As Ben Dunant pointed out last week in his detailed preview of the election, the result is likely to present a puzzle: which is that by a crude measure, this week’s election will likely end up genuinely reflecting the sentiments of a majority of the country’s population. The coming of relatively free elections to Myanmar was something of a miracle after half a century of military dictatorship. But many Western observers have held naïve assumptions about how democracy would play out in a society “where the basic terms of national identity and power-sharing between a Bamar [Burman] center and an ethnic minority periphery remain unsettled.”
One could conceivably extend this critique to the exalted position in which elections are placed by foreign governments and international development agencies more generally. All too often, they are presented implicitly as a universal salve, rather than a contingent process that tends to reflect the underlying political and social conditions of the country in which they take place.
One effect, perhaps an indirect one, has been to sideline any substantial discussion of economic policy. In a recent article, the scholar Gerard McCarthy noted the curious absence of economic justice from the NLD’s platform, in place of neoliberal nostrums and individualistic appeals for moral discipline and renewal. A robust economic agenda based on collective, class-based interests might have offered a basis for the bridging of ethnic and religious divides. Without it, economic hardship and inequality will continue to make the population receptive to racial and sectarian appeals.
Rather than overcoming Myanmar’s racial and religious identity, then, competitive elections have amplified and channeled them. This weekend’s red wave is a ringing reminder that while fair and well administered elections are a necessary precondition for popular sovereignty – “the inescapable sine qua non” of democracy, as the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington once termed them – they are not always sufficient. Myanmar has come a long way in the past 10 years. But it still has a long way to go.