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Politics

Myanmar's Suu Kyi faces hard race in countryside as elections loom

Ethnic parties merge to run against ruling National League for Democracy

Led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy is expected to win the general election to be held in November.   © AP

YANGON -- Myanmar's voting commission on Wednesday announced that general elections will be held on Nov. 8. The National League for Democracy, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to win the majority in both legislative houses, although the ruling party is likely to face tough battles in rural constituencies home to the country's diverse ethnic groups.

Three-fourths of the 224 seats for the upper house of parliament and 440 for the lower house will be elected, with the remainder to be appointed by the military. All elected seats will be contested in single-seat districts. After the balloting, all parliamentarians will vote for a new president.

The announcement by the Union Election Commission comes as the coronavirus pandemic is sweeping the globe and is unlikely to be eradicated by voting day. In Myanmar, total cases topped 300 on July 1, relatively low compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, some opposition parties have been calling for officials to consider postponing the elections. The election commission plans to put in place measures such as social distancing at polling stations to prevent the spread of the virus.

Roughly 70% of Myanmar's population of 53 million are of Burman ethnicity and achieving peace with other ethnic groups has been one of the country's main political challenges for decades. Around half of the 20 groups have not agreed to a ceasefire with the military.

The NLD won a landslide victory in 2015 -- beating the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party -- and promised during electioneering to achieve a peace agreement. It won 79% of the contested seats, and now controls 58% of seats in parliament.

However, the NLD led government had difficulties in collaborating with the military in peace negotiations with ethnic groups as the country lacks civilian control over the military.

Disappointment among ethnic groups spread, compounded what had been high initial expectations. "The NLD looks like it is the same as the military," said a resident in Kachin state in the north of the country. "I feel betrayed (by the NLD)," added the resident, who asked not to be named.

In late June, Vice-Secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, an ethnic party, told local media, "we are fighting for equality. We want to win the election so that we can engage in dialogue [with the NLD]." The SNLD is one of the major ethnic parties and is based in Shan State in the east of the country.

On the other hand, for constituents in urban areas, Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest by the military for decades, has been the symbol of democracy in Myanmar and currently enjoys wide support. But the story is different in the countryside where its support rate is almost equal with that for local ethnic parties.

In the 2015 election the ethnic parties ran against each other, which dispersed votes among them. The parties are now gradually merging to have a better chance against the NLD. Therefore, it is questionable if the NLD can achieve a similar landslide victory as then, although many believe it will still retain its majority.

The NLD-led parliament approved amendments to the election law in May that states a person will need to reside in a constituency for 90 days to gain voting rights. Previously, the stipulated period was six months. Ethnic parties have been criticizing the government by claiming that the change is being made to allow new residents in rural areas, who are mainly Burman, to be eligible to vote.

Another challenge for the NLD will be amending the constitution, which grants political power to the military. The party negotiated with the powerful institution over the past few years but without gaining meaningful results.

If the NLD loses a vast number of seats in the coming elections, the party might lose the political clout to achieve democratic reforms and economic development.

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