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Opinion

Myanmar's smooth election disguises systemic failure

Big vote for Suu Kyi obscures country's near irreconcilable divisions

| Myanmar
Supporters of the NLD celebrate election victory in Mandalay on Nov. 9: the political fallout may contradict the electoral results.   © Sipa/AP

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst based in Yangon.

Myanmar's multiparty elections resulted in a singular outcome: the landslide return of the ruling National League for Democracy and its widely revered leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Results announced a day after the Nov. 8 poll appear to give the NLD a repeat of its stunning 2015 victory, winning most of the Myanmar heartland regions and Yangon, the commercial capital.

The NLD victory was not much in doubt. It is the scale that matters, especially since the elections were conducted in the midst of a COVID-19 surge, with most of Yangon under lockdown and campaigning severely disrupted for many candidates by travel restrictions and quarantine rules. That did not deter exuberant campaign rallies in some rural areas and provincial towns, with many NLD supporters flaunting rules limiting public gatherings to 50 people, with apparent indifference to the risks of infection.

The main opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, suffered an even more embarrassing rout than it did five years ago, losing many seats, especially in Naypyidaw, the capital. The USDP no longer enjoys the full support of Myanmar's armed forces, also known as the Tatmadaw, but the two institutions remain widely associated, making the election as much an expression of opposition to military involvement in government as it was a demonstration of support for Suu Kyi. Rejecting the USDP in 2015 was a way of telling the military to get out of politics; in 2020 the message was to stay out.

The real surprise in the election was the uneven showing of Myanmar's minority ethnic-based parties. Much attention was directed at Rakhine State, where nine townships were deprived of their representation, along with large swathes of other townships. This amounted to gerrymandering against the aspirations of the Arakan National Party, which won half of the state's seats in 2015 and was the NLD's main rival. Nevertheless, the ANP won seven state assembly seats, with the NLD picking up four, and the army's reserved seats falling from 12 to five.

Anger about the gerrymandering, which disenfranchised 1.2 million eligible voters, and the uncertain conduct of potential by-elections in the canceled seats, will continue to fuel support for the Arakan Army insurgency, Myanmar's most deadly civil conflict, which has seen thousands of combatants killed over the past three years and more than 220,000 civilians displaced. The NLD's reward for thwarting the electoral aspirations of the ANP may turn out to be greater support for violent options against the Myanmar state.

Soldiers walk over Gote Twin bridge damaged by explosion in Shan State on Aug. 15, 2019. Members of an ethnic rebel alliance staged coordinated attacks in five locations on that day and 14 people were reported killed.   © AP

Minority-ethnic parties also fared unevenly in other areas. In Mon and Shan states, minority ethnic-based parties achieved modest gains, but in Kayin, Kachin and Chin states, support for local parties all but collapsed. At a senior level, the performance of the Union Election Commission, a gerontocracy of 15 men, was appallingly incompetent and was the central shortcoming of the polls. However, at the level of the polling stations, electoral officials largely managed the voting well, despite the uneven enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions.

This demonstrates two key lessons of the 2020 polls. The first is the necessity for a truly independent and competent electoral commission to avoid a repeat of the confusion that swirled around the conduct of the elections. Much of this stemmed from the UEC, whose shortcomings invited sharp criticism from both Suu Kyi and the military leadership.

Second, it is still clear that -- with international donor support -- Myanmar is capable of running technically proficient elections, managed by well-trained and dedicated local polling station staff, despite the obstacles elsewhere in the system, although this proficiency likely dissipated in remote areas where scrutiny by monitoring groups was absent.

What do the results portend for Myanmar? For the majority of the population, who live in the regions that returned strong support for the NLD, it was an election that consolidated democratic progress. The voting delivered no major evolution, but the outcome is in line with the NLD's campaign slogan: Continue the change. It is unlikely that Suu Kyi's autocratic governance style will improve, even though she must face the pressing issues of leadership secession. She will be 80 when the next elections fall due in 2025.

Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for an early vote in Naypyitaw on Oct. 29: she will be 80 when the next elections fall due in 2025.   © Reuters

The NLD must address the major structural challenges facing the country: the peace process, constitutional change, economic development, the impact of COVID-19, and a likely reduction in foreign investment and Western assistance. All these challenges were unimpressively tackled in the NLD's first term, and the party has rejected dynamism and innovation in favor of idolatry of its leader.

In the ethnic-minority areas the near future will be different, even with a strong showing from the NLD. Limited parliamentary representation for ethnic-minority parties will do nothing to address what many perceive as neglect from the governing party, continued military oppression, and economic plundering by neighboring states such as China.

The political fallout from the elections may contradict the electoral results, and could lead many exasperated people in Rakhine and Shan states, in particular, to support more violent options for change. The Tatmadaw will remain unreformed and unrepentant of its violent pacification methods, and will refuse concessions that strengthen the NLD. Nor will the armed forces compromise with the demands of minority-ethnic armed groups demanding genuine federal solutions to political problems, continuing, instead, to expect capitulation.

Sadly, the 2020 election has revealed a divided and almost irreconcilable Myanmar, despite the technical success of the process.

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