November 2, 2015 9:00 am JST
Richard Horsey

The acid test of Myanmar's democratic transition

Myanmar will go to the polls on Nov. 8 in what will be a landmark election. The main opposition National League for Democracy party will be contesting nationally for the first time in a generation. And if all goes as expected, next year Myanmar will see its first democratic transfer of power since 1960.

     Many people worry that history may repeat itself.  However, the context is very different from 1990, when the NLD won in a landslide but the then-military regime, which had taken power in a coup two years earlier, failed to respect the results. And it is very different from 2010, when the NLD boycotted the elections and the establishment Union Solidarity and Development Party secured its own landslide, partly through manipulation of advance votes.

     This time around, the military has had a long time to plan. It embarked on the current transition process because it concluded that there was no viable alternative to fundamental political and economic liberalization.  It did so knowing that the opposition would likely win any credible election, and it therefore made sure that its red lines were enshrined in the 2008 constitution. Thus, the military holds one quarter of all legislative seats, giving it influence in lawmaking and a veto over constitutional changes, which require a parliamentary "super majority."  It appoints the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs, giving it control of the key security portfolios. To complete the picture, Section 59(f) of the constitution prevents NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who the military does not trust or believe capable of running the country, from becoming president.

     With the military's essential interests protected, the commander-in-chief has given public assurances that a transfer of power will take place, even in the face of an opposition landslide.

     The elections themselves are shaping up to be relatively credible and peaceful. The government-appointed election commission has generally done a good job at establishing fair regulations and procedures, although it has not always been very effective at communicating this. The rules of the game are far more credible than they were in 2010, including on advance voting. With party agents, domestic and international observers, international journalists and a vibrant local media all watching, it will be very difficult to manipulate the vote unnoticed. While there are bound to be many irregularities, large-scale fraud appears unlikely.

Concerns remain

There are nevertheless a number of serious concerns. The voter roll still contains many flaws. This is the first time that it has been digitized nationwide, in a secure, auditable database -- a vital step in improving accuracy, removing duplicate entries and preventing fraud. But this is an enormous task and it is unsurprising that there have been many substantive as well as data-entry errors -- although many of these, such as misspellings or wrong addresses, will not affect people's ability to vote.  

     The election commission is struggling to correct the millions of errors that have been found by voters, and to explain the poor state of the roll. The database software provided by an international electoral support organization has been a convenient target for blame, but is not the source of the problem. The truth is that the local paper records of the home ministry and immigration department -- both currently headed by the same army general -- form the basis of the roll, and most of the errors originate there. Software, however, is easier to blame than powerful government agencies, especially for another government agency.

     Also of concern is disenfranchisement. Several hundred thousand Muslim Rohingya voters in Rakhine state have lost the right to vote as a result of a deliberate policy decision, backed by parliament and the constitutional tribunal. An even larger number of minority ethnic voters in conflict-affected parts of the eastern borderlands cannot vote due to security-related cancellation of polling. The criteria for making these security decisions have not been transparent, leading to perceptions of bias against minority communities. The mixing of religion and politics has also been a serious issue, with neither the NLD nor USDP fielding a single Muslim candidate, and the monk-led Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha) entering the political debate -- contrary to electoral law and to edicts by Buddhist authorities.

     Importantly, though, none of these issues appears to reflect attempts by the government or electoral authorities to manipulate the outcome.

NLD victory?

The exact results of the election are hard to predict -- there are no systematic opinion polls, and the first-past-the-post electoral system introduces additional uncertainty. But the broad popular support for Suu Kyi, particularly among the Burman majority, means that the NLD is poised to become the largest party in parliament, probably by a significant margin. The USDP will see a massive decline from its current 70% of elected seats. Minority ethnic parties will do well in their areas, but the sheer number of parties, and Myanmar's complex ethnic mosaic, means that vote splitting will reduce their haul of seats.

     Even if it falls short of an outright majority, the NLD is likely to choose the next president when the new parliament votes in February. The president is chosen in a single round of voting among three candidates, so the winning candidate will require less than 50% -- probably around 40%, an achievable target for the NLD.

     The question then becomes who Suu Kyi will choose as president. She has basically two options: select a reformist member of the old elite, or another member of her own party. Her close and cooperative relations with parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, a former top general, had suggested that he could be a possible candidate. But his removal as head of the USDP following a rift with both the president and the commander-in-chief make him a less attractive option. Suu Kyi has subsequently indicated, to the international media and on the campaign trail, that she will take the second option and choose a civilian from within the NLD's own ranks.

     She has been explicit that in such a scenario she would be the real power behind the throne, saying in early October: "I'm going to be the leader of the government whether or not I'm the president." This is a high-stakes gambit. It subverts Article 59 (f) of the constitution concerning criteria for the presidency and therefore risks further alienating the military. And it will make it all the more difficult for a Suu Kyi administration to govern the country. The most important factor in the success of the new government and its ability to address Myanmar's many fundamental challenges -- from peace to public sector reform -- will be relations between the president and the commander-in-chief. If they get off to a bad start, it will be very hard to recover.

Richard Horsey is an independent political analyst based in Yangon.

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