How much faith can Myanmar’s people have in this election?

Published on November 6, 2015

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Guardian – November 6, 2015

Myanmar’s people have mixed feelings about the election on Sunday. While some I’ve spoken to are excited that they at last have a chance to vote for their choice of candidate without any coercion, others are less enthusiastic – either because they don’t realise the election’s significance or because they have little or no faith in the system.

As a native of Myanmar and a researcher on the country’s politics, I see the election as one indicator of democracy in the making. Although while holding a periodic election is essential, I also see that Myanmar needs to develop its democratic institutions.

When I visited Yangon and Naypyidaw in 2014, there were still only a few parties that had decided to contest the election. Even Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was yet to decide whether it would participate. Now around 90 parties are in the fray.

While there is some excitement and expectation, there are also lingering concerns about the election, such as advance-voting fraud, and the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of people.

Owing to security reasons, the Union Election Commission has cancelled voting in several hundred villages across the states of Kachin, Karen, Mon and Shan, and the Bago region. And as civil servants, Myanmar nationals living overseas and tens of thousands of soldiers have been casting their votes, there are concerns that the authorities might engage in ballot stuffing.

Of the country’s population of 52 million, only about 32 million are declared eligible voters. And a major international concern is the exclusion of about 760,000 Muslims, most of whom are Rohingya from Rakhine state.

Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become the international symbol of political repression in the country after her long-running house arrest, has herself been criticised for failing to speak out about human rights abuses suffered by the country’s Muslims. Her party is also accused of appeasing rising anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by hardline Buddhist nationalist monks.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been noticeably less vocal on human rights issues since she decided to run for a byelection in 2012. In a predominantly Buddhist country the party has decided not to be seen as pro-Muslim.

But distancing herself from human rights – one of the core issues Aung San Suu Kyi had stood for – has done some damage to her reputation, even though the vast majority of people still see her as a more trustworthy leader than her electoral rivals.

The situation would certainly have been different had Aung San Suu Kyi decided to remain a pro-democracy icon and advocate, had she not been so ambitious to lead the country, and had the Muslim population been large enough to secure a sizeable number of parliamentary seats.

However, despite the criticisms, the NLD is expected to do well in the election – though unlikely to muster an overwhelming majority similar to the 1990 general election and the 2012 by-election.

If the NLD forms the next government, either by itself or with coalition partners, Aung San Suu Kyi will not be president. The constitution states that if one of your “legitimate children … owes allegiance to a foreign power” you are disqualified. That covers both Aung San Suu Kyi’s sons, who are British citizens.

It is possible that the NLD will nominate one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s longtime associates, such as Tin Oo. He is a retired general and former commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the Union of Myanmar, who has been a colleague of Aung San Suu Kyi since the NLD’s formation in 1988.

Regardless of who assumes the presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi would remain the main architect of the administration. She has unequivocally expressed her desire to lead the government despite knowing the fact that she is constitutionally barred from the presidency.

However, since 25%of parliamentarians will be military representatives, she will have to find a way to amend or replace the constitution outside the parliament or by convincing the military leadership, which will be quite a challenge.

On the other hand, if the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) forms the next government, things are unlikely to change, and Thein Sein will probably be reinstalled as president.

Crucially, whatever the outcome, as long as the 2008 constitution is not amended or replaced, the dominant role of the military will continue, which means Myanmar’s democratisation process will remain fragile.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a US-based political scientist and author of three books on Myanmar, including the forthcoming Democratisation of Myanmar.

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