Elections in the Midst of a Pandemic II: Myanmar

3 mins read

This is the second part of a three-part series about elections held in times of Covid-19. The first part can be found here.

By Nina Kaufmann

On November 8, Myanmar is electing a new parliament. But who is deciding? In this Southeast Asian country of 54 million people, a fair and inclusive democratic process is anything but given. Myanmar’s electoral system has been heavily criticized by external observers, and the ongoing pandemic doesn’t make the execution of credible elections any easier. At the same time, the hopes for the 2020 elections are high. The country’s last general elections were held five years ago, and the results were contested. Will the upcoming elections be able to turn a trend of democratic setbacks, or rather make existing challenges even more visible? An outlook. 

The elections on Sunday are not only going to appoint a new upper and lower house, but a total of 1,171 seats in national and regional legislatures. Once the members of parliament are elected, an electoral college is also going to decide on a new president. Clearly, the results on November 8 have a substantial impact on the upcoming years of Myanmar politics.  

However already way ahead of election day, the voting process has proven to have serious flaws. Shortly after early voting started, on October 29, complaints about torn and opened ballots were reported. The capacity of the national election commission to ensure free and fair elections seems rather weak, which has been addressed not only by external observers, but recently also by the country’s own military. The military, also known as the Tatmadaw, holds substantial power in Myanmar decision-making, with 25% of seats in the national parliament reserved for its representatives. Although the pro-democratic National League for Democracy (NLD) won a supermajority (86%) in the 2015 elections, the military has remained a powerful political actor in the country – a legacy of the military junta that only ended in 2011, when the first relatively democratic elections in the country were held. 

NLD has been a key actor in Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement during the last decades. In 2019, the party pushed for reforms of the electoral system – an initiative that was turned down by the parliament. The NLD, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in the lead, has however also been heavily criticized for their inability to handle the situation for the state persecuted Rohingya minority. After the 2015 elections, human rights advocates hoped that the party would bring a change to the decades of discrimination and persecution, but in reality, the situation for the Rohingya has only gotten worse. In the upcoming elections the issue is once again a key topic, and sure has an impact when (some) voters cast their ballots. A major snag: Rohingya themselves are not allowed to vote. 

Extensive exclusion of minorities is a pressing democratic issue in Myanmar, and one of the main reasons why Human Right Watch warns that the upcoming election is “fundamentally flawed”. While the elections have been described as a milestone for Myanmar democracy, it is rather questionable if the results on Sunday will bring any major changes to the current situation. NLD is expected to again win a great majority in parliament. The military still holds a minimum of 25% of seats, and is thereby the only minority in the country that is assured political power. Other groups, among them most prominently the Rohingya, are still not included in decision-making processes. 

There are also other reasons to expect a more or less status quo in Myanmar after the votes are counted on November 8. The ongoing pandemic has made it hard for opposition parties to reach out to voters due to limited campaigning possibilities. While 90 parties are running in the elections, only a few of them have even the slightest chance to challenge the current rule. And even those that do will unlikely gain considerable political power.

Sunday’s results are indeed influential for the next years of Myanmar politics, but as it seems they probably won’t bring a lot of change to today’s power balance. The elections will likely give Myanmar another government with a strong popular mandate – something relatively rare in Southeast Asia. At the same time, substantial democratic challenges will remain. In the 2020 Freedom House report, Myanmar dropped from being considered “partly free” to “not free”. In the V-Dem democracy score, the country ranks 119 out of 179 democracies in the world. 

To hold regular elections is key for a vital democracy, but elections themselves are certainly not sufficient if they do not succeed in being free, fair, competitive and representative. Nine years after the fall of the military junta, Myanmar still seems to have some considerable progress to do.

Cover photo: Brianna Caldwell

Previous Story

A Polarized Nation: Is There a Remedy for America?

Next Story

India, Australia and Indonesia in the Indo-Pacific: Time for Trilateral Cooperation