Myanmar will hold its nationwide general elections on November 8. It is the first such election in five years. If the polls demonstrate reasonable transparency, it would be Myanmar’s first free and fair election since 1990, when the junta had refused to accept the verdict in favour of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD). Later on, Suu Kyi was put under house arrest. However, in the 2012 by-elections, the NLD won 43 out of 45 seats, including the Kawhmu constituency won by Suu Kyi herself.
In addition to the NLD’s decision to “play ball”, several other factors make this election significant. It’s remarkable both
in terms of scale and intensity, as around 6,000 candidates from more than 90 parties are in the fray for 1,142 seats — spread across the House of Nationalities (Upper House), House of Representatives (Lower House), and the State and Region Hluttaws (state assemblies) — but excluding 25 per cent seats reserved for the military. Around 30 million eligible voters would decide the country’s political future.
The last general elections in November 2010 were considered “rigged”. The NLD had boycotted the election, accusing the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of fraud concerning electoral rolls, ghost voters and undue military intervention. The international community didn’t appreciate the government’s role in the USDP victory.
Much water has flowed down the Irrawaddy since, validating the argument that democratic transition should be incremental. Indeed, Myanmar has fared considerably well compared with political upheavals around the same time in
countries like Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some positive developments have taken place. Myanmar is considered a freer and more democratic country today. The reforms undertaken by President Thein Sein have seen some success. Although some would expect him to do more, he should be given credit for his efforts to peacefully bring Myanmar on the reform path. Expectations have blended with the ground realities now, but the pressure on the ruling party and Sein is immense to ensure a free and fair democratic election.
Nevertheless, several challenges lie ahead. First and foremost is the threat of “performance anxiety” on the part of the government, considering that hopes are high both at home and abroad. The international community is keeping a close watch, with election observers from several countries already camping in Myanmar. Living up to the expectations of the “oracles of democracy”, who judge progress only on the basis of substantive outcomes along democratic parameters, will be a tough task.
Second, Suu Kyi has already started making noises about the presence of ghost voters and the possibility of rigging. Monk Wirathu and his 10-million-strong Ma Ba Tha support the USDP in the polls. This alliance has the potential to paint the election with a communal brush, which would be dangerous for the NLD and the national fabric.
Third, ethnic minorities, rebels and insurgents might pose major challenges. The Wa rebels, active in the northeastern Myanmar bordering China, have called for a meeting of all non-signatories to the nationwide ceasefire. It would be difficult to penetrate the disturbed areas and expect normal polling. The election might just exacerbate tensions.
Fourth, the lack of representation for Rohingyas and other Muslims is a major setback. Wirathu has termed the NLD a “Muslim” party, but Suu Kyi’s own stand on Muslims has not been consistently strong. Her party has not chosen a single Muslim candidate. The non-representation of minority Muslims would keep millions of Myanmarese out of the democratic process.
Fifth, a major challenge for the government has been the floods that have affected 12 out of the 14 administrative regions, affecting a million people. At one point, the government mulled postponing the elections.
Last, it is an uphill task to conduct free elections in a country where the military still calls the shots and where society is sharply divided. If the current political dispensation can successfully conduct the polls, it will be a great achievement. Whatever the results, a smooth process will be a small step towards normalcy.
The writer is Asia fellow at the East West Centre, Washington DC
(The article appeared in the print under the headline, ‘A Myanmar without fear’)