Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Myanmar on the brink

Myanmar on the brink
Published 6 Nov 2015   Follow @ConnellyAL

On Sunday, most Myanmar citizens will go to the polls for the first time in their lives, or at least in the last 25 years. Dispatches from journalists in Myanmar have highlighted the enthusiasm of crowds greeting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she has traveled around the country, and particularly at last Sunday's rally for her National League for Democracy in Yangon, where tens of thousands turned out.

These reports strongly suggest that the NLD will cruise to a landslide win, as they did when they took all but one of the 44 seats they contested in by-elections in 2012, and when they last contested a nationwide election in 1990.

But such predictions mask an extraordinary amount of uncertainty. There has been no polling in Myanmar this year, so we have little more than anecdotal evidence to go on. Former political prisoner Aung Din estimates on Cogitasia that a third of voters may be undecided. It seems possible that the result will disappoint the NLD and its supporters, due to the complex politics of the ethnic states, weaknesses in the NLD electoral strategy and flaws in the conduct of the elections. 

As many others have noted, Myanmar has struggled to organise  its first democratic elections in 25 years. Problems with the voter rolls, malapportionment, the cancellation of voting in areas wracked by conflict, a machete attack on one opposition candidate and other irregularities have marred the vote. That is to say nothing of the 25% of the seats in the legislature that are reserved for the military. But for all its flaws, the election commission has sought to correct many irregularities when they have been raised.

This is a competitive election, which all parties and the military have accepted could lead to a peaceful change of government. [fold]

But even if the vote were completely free and fair, there are reasons to wonder whether the NLD could emerge victorious. The ethnic states around the country's periphery, which are dominated by ethnic minority groups rather than the majority Bamar ethnic group of Aung San Suu Kyi and most other national leaders, are the areas most likely to create problems for the NLD. In many states, ethnic parties appear to be as strong as any of the national parties, and the NLD's electoral strategy does not appear to have accounted for this.

A recent interview by the Irrawaddy with an NLD candidate in Mon State is revealing. The young Bamar candidate cannot even communicate with many of her constituents because she does not speak the Mon language. The NLD has gambled that its preference for young, inexperienced, ethnic Bamar candidates who have been chosen primarily for their loyalty to Aung San Suu Kyi can be overcome by overwhelming affection for Aung San Suu Kyi and the expectation that she will bring about an improvement in their daily lives. By contrast, many USDP candidates are well known and have had months to spread official largesse. 

It is possible that a large ethnic bloc could emerge from the elections, serving as a third force that could play kingmaker in a hung parliament where neither the ruling USDP nor the NLD are able to claim a majority. In exchange, they might demand greater autonomy in their home states, a position that goes to the very heart of Myanmar's constitutional arrangements and could precipitate a constitutional crisis.

If the results do put the NLD and any coalition partners within reach of a legislative majority, the uncertainty will nevertheless linger, as the junta-drawn constitution is designed to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD from exercising the power that would normally come with such a popular mandate. She is ineligible for the presidency because she has foreign family members, and key ministries are reserved for the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly said that she will 'lead the government' regardless of who the president is, and on Thursday clarified that if the NLD won the election she would 'be above the president.' This again goes to the heart of Myanmar's constitutional arrangements, and one must wonder how the military will react at such an effort to circumvent the constitution they carefully crafted to keep her from power.

The nearly five-month gap between the election and presidential swearing-in are thus likely to be filled with intrigue, as coalition negotiations bring these constitutional arrangements into question. The NLD may win big on Sunday, or it may come up short. But either way, the election is likely to create more uncertainty than it resolves.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Prachatai.

You may also be interested in