On 8 November, the people of Myanmar will make their choice in an election that represents an important step along the way towards a more democratic political system. Whatever the outcome, the election will not be the end of Myanmar’s story of political reform and there are many uncertain steps ahead. The lead-up to the election was plagued by criticism and uncertainty. In Myanmar new things need to be done almost daily, as the wise observe, and they all carry some level of risk.
But this election will be different from any that Myanmar has experienced before. It will be the largest in every respect : in terms of number of candidates, political parties, registered voters and independents. External help has been accepted in running and in monitoring the election. The electoral roll has been digitised. There are issues about the rolls, campaign irregularities and media bias as well as massive logistical challenges. But nobody could say that there hasn’t been political will behind the holding of an election that is credible and genuine commitment to building trust in progress towards a more representative democracy in Myanmar.
The main contestants will win or lose the battle for control of the parliament in the predominantly bamar heartland of the country, although it will be difficult for any party to make progress on the key issues that confront Myanmar without an eye to a national coalition. With the principal contenders in the election being the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic parties are campaigning hard to take their constituencies and other minor mainstream parties offer an alternative choice. Buddhist nationalists and activists are also a factor. The USDP, with backing from the military, is portraying itself as a reformist party and a protector of amyo barthar tharthanar (race and religion). The NLD, with the slogan ‘it’s time to change’, projects itself as the only party capable of delivering democracy to Myanmar. It will be very difficult for the NLD to win an absolute parliamentary majority which will require it winning 67 per cent of the seats because of the preservation of 25 per cent representation by the military under the current constitution, but its popularity and brand puts it in with a shot.
During the campaign Aung San Suu Kyi has been careful not to alienate the military, the tatmadaw, or the bamar Buddhist majority. She has avoided criticising those in uniform, promising to focus on national reconciliation rather than seeking ‘revenge’ for past grudges. Exercising effective political power and the levers of government after the election will depend not only on achieving a decisive electoral victory. It will also require accommodation of the military and acknowledging the power of the underlying forces that still shape Myanmar’s polity.
Increased political transparency of the political process is reflected in the acceptance of international assistance in running the election, an historic first. A five year (2014–18) strategic plan for the Union Election Commission (UEC) was put together with the help of USAID and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Twenty-one foreign countries are sending more than 500 observers to monitor the election. Five prominent international organisations, the European Union, the Carter Center, the International Republican Institute, the Asian Network for Free Elections and the Netherlands based Gender Concerns International are observing the election on a long-term basis. The process may not be perfect, but it’s been relatively smooth and open to scrutiny.
In this week’s lead essay, Trevor Wilson argues that, whoever wins, after the initial reforms (that were dramatic and surprised everyone) the focus must now turn to the legacy of ‘unfinished business’. That’s the subliminal message of the opposition NLD’s campaign.
That political and economic reform is still incomplete and has not always worked well is not surprising. Many of the most difficult areas have not yet been touched by reform — land reforms, judicial system reform and ending human rights abuses are still to be tackled — and there is certainly, as Wilson says, much unfinished business.
The first and by far the most important issue is that of the Myanmar constitution. The document was drawn up under the military regime of 1988–2006 without the full participation of other political parties, such as the opposition NLD. It was ‘endorsed’ in a dubious referendum in 2008. The constitution left the Myanmar army with pre-eminent powers and an important political ‘comfort zone’ in which its institutional interests and inappropriate behaviours were not seriously challenged.
Although the military regime was formally terminated in early 2011, after Myanmar’s 2010 elections, it was not politically possible under the elected government of President Thein Sein to conduct a full review of the constitution. Discussion of some of the manifestly undemocratic provisions of the constitution occurred in the parliament. But amendments to clauses preventing the NLD’s Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president and requiring 75 per cent of votes in parliament to allow amendments were blocked by the Tatmadaw (which reserves 25 per cent of the seats for its own appointments) in July 2015.
Revision of the constitution is a high priority for the NLD, but it will need extensive negotiation through the parliament. Negotiation of a new constitution is likely to take the full five-year term to complete.
‘The challenge’, as Wilson says, ‘will be to accomplish this in a way that does not provoke the powerful army into staging a coup, as has happened repeatedly in neighbouring Thailand. But if the army participates fully in the parliamentary process, this should be feasible. Ending the capacity the army has effectively enjoyed to act with impunity since independence is a vital step towards a durable democracy’.
A related piece of unfinished business is to restore the rule of law in Myanmar. Dealing with the corruption and poor performance of the entire court system is a matter of urgency. And a third is to translate Myanmar’s present constitutional arrangements into an effective federal system that suits Myanmar’s circumstances. Wilson judges that it is probably unrealistic to expect other unfinished political business — such as agreeing on the proper status for the Rohingya Muslims — to be resolved easily or soon, much as the international community might hope for it to be.
Making progress on these elements of political reform will also be crucial to the success of Myanmar’s economic openness and development, and improving the living standards of all, not just some of, its people.