The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is set to claim an historic electoral victory in Myanmar, three days after polls closed in the country’s first relatively free election in 25 years.
The party believes it has won about 75% of the seats in the 664-seat Union Parliament, inflicting a massive defeat on the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political avatar of the Myanmar military.
On Election Day, November 8, crowds of NLD supporters cheered and danced in the street outside the party’s Yangon headquarters, draped in the party’s red insignia, as the first tentative results were beamed up on a giant screen. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the party’s charismatic leader initially called for patience as the official results were tallied. Two days later, the 70-year-old Nobel laureate told the BBC she believed her party has won a parliamentary majority.
As of publication, the official count by the Union Election Commission gave the NLD 350 of 430 seats declared across the Union Parliament and regional legislatures; more than 80%. The USDP had won just 29, with the remainder going to smaller parties. If current trends hold, the NLD will win more than enough seats to form government and elect the country’s next president. It looms as an overwhelming and decisive repudiation of military rule.
The people of Myanmar participated in their long-awaited election with relish. In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, long lines stretched outside polling stations in the pre-dawn gloom before the polls officially opened at 6am.
From interviews at polling stations, it was clear early on that the election was trending red. 'This election has taken us straight to democracy', was the confident verdict of Maung Maung Gyi, 56, a businessman who cast his ballot at a Buddhist pagoda near the walls of the old Mandalay palace. 'I think it’s very important for us to choose a new government — a good government'.
By election night, the NLD’s early counts in Mandalay showed massive leads in most local constituencies — some by as much as 10 votes to one — as cheering, red-clad crowds massed in Yangon and Mandalay to celebrate the returns.
The next day, despite the lack of official results, the contours of the USDP defeat began to emerge. The powerful speaker of the Lower House, Thura U Shwe Mann, conceded his seat in a Facebook post; later in the day, the USDP’s acting chairman, U Htay Oo, admitted defeat, stating, 'We lost'.
These and other foundering USDP officials were top-ranking officers in the military junta that handed power to the semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein in 2011 after nearly five decades of army rule. In an initial assessment of the election, the European Union’s chief observer described the polls as 'by and large transparent'.
Final results are still some days away, but it seems increasingly likely that the NLD will win the 333 seats it needs to win to control the 664-seat Union Parliament, and select the country’s next president. Such a result would represent a moment of destiny for Suu Kyi’s NLD, which won a 1990 election in a similar landslide but saw its victory annulled by the Myanmar military.
But this win will come with a caveat.
Even if it wins control of government, the NLD will be tightly circumscribed by the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which ropes off a space for the army 'to participate in the national political leadership role of the state'.
The constitution reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military candidates, and ensures that the most powerful ministries — Defence, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs — will remain under military control. This effectively means that their budgets will remain above civilian scrutiny, regardless of which party controls the government.
Since three-quarters of lawmakers are required for any amendments to the constitution, the military essentially holds a veto against any changes — enshrining its dominance in an aspic of constitutional legitimacy. The charter’s notorious Article 59(f) also bars Aung San Suu Kyi from holding the presidency, because of her late foreign spouse and children.
Myanmar’s presidency is not directly elected. After the election, three candidates will be nominated by the lower and upper houses of parliament, and the military. The president is then chosen by a vote of both houses, with the losers becoming vice-presidents. With the talismanic Suu Kyi barred from running, there is much speculation about whom her party might nominate. But whoever has the title, Suu Kyi has made it clear she will run the show from 'above the president'.
Whoever is in charge will inherit some serious — and deeply structural — problems. For decades Myanmar has been wracked by nearly constant civil war and tensions between the ethnic Burman heartland and the country’s mountainous periphery, home to a wide diversity of ethnic minority peoples.
The darkest stain on Sunday’s election was the disenfranchisement of more than a million Rohingya Muslims living in coastal Rakhine State in the country’s west. They were struck from voter lists because they are considered illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for decades and voted in the last, flawed election in 2010.
It's already clear the new Myanmar parliament will be the first in the country’s history with no Muslim members. After political mobilisation by the monk-led, ultra-nationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion — known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha — few parties, including the NLD, ran any Muslim candidates.
Many more ethnic minority voters were also unable to cast a ballot after voting was cancelled in Kachin State, Shan State, and other outlying areas plagued by continuing conflict and instability.
If they gain a governing majority in the coming days, Suu Kyi and her party have said they will press for amendments to the constitution and, in due course, begin tackling the country’s daunting problems. But as Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said this week, 'there is no indication that the military is going to give an inch'.
How these issues play out over the coming weeks and months will undoubtedly be fraught and unpredictable.
For the time being though, Myanmar is celebrating a long-awaited red dawn.