Elections in Myanmar: The Return of NLD
Dr Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, Neighbourhood Studies, VIF

The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has received the largest mandate in the national parliamentary elections in Myanmar’s latest election held on 8 November 2020, winning 396 of the 498 contested seats in the bicameral parliament. This win was larger than the 2015 election with NLD garnering 258 (out of 330) in the Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) from its previous 255 seats, and 138 seats (out of 168) in the Amyotha Hluttaw (upper house) from its previous 135.1

With more than 6,900 candidates from 90 political parties fighting for 664 seats in the national parliament (166 seats are reserved for the military) Myanmar had more than 37 million eligible voters, including 5 million first-timers. This 8 November 2020 election had, there is an additional 800 candidates 2015 and double from 2010, with the number of political parties almost tripled from 37. The Union Solidarity and Development Party(USDP) managed to win only 71 seats that translated to 6.4% lower than its previous 10%. Very dissatisfied with the numbers it has filed 800 electoral complaints.2

Despite, the perceived lack lustre NLD government’s performance in the last term, there was very little doubt about NLD’s popularity and their possible return to the parliament, but the vast majority was higher than expected. The disappointments about the NLD government performance, surrounding the lack of delivery on the democratic transition nor taking the ethnic peace process forward nor being able to attract greater investments and enabling conditions for the economy to grow stronger has been stark.

However, with 25 percent of the parliamentary seats under the armed forces, the Tatmadaw continue to wield a strong influence, holding three key cabinet posts of home affairs, defence and border affairs with them.Given the huge electoral mandate received by NLD in the 2015 parliamentary election, (winning 79.4 percent votes, 255 of 323 elected seats in the lower house and 135 of 168 in the upper house), their reluctance to initiate any effective measures to limit the military powers over the parliament was palpable. Other than in one of the recent inaugural electoral campaign speech that Aung Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar and leader of the ruling NLD has expressed some reservation about armed forces’ control and need for reforms to bring in a more effective democracy, however, this and some few instances far and between was not very convincing. Despite NLD’s obvious limitations, Suu Kyi is the only political leader most pin their hopes on for ensuring democratic transition. Few specific developments contributed to the wave in her favour too. The elections were held on schedule and largely considered free and fair, is a positive step towards building democratic stability in Myanmar.

Clearly, some factors worked in NLD and Suu Kyi’s favour, what are they?

Firstly, the Buddhist Bamar majority population lends their support to Suu Kyi. Their sheer numbers of around 32 million comprising nearly 70% of the population forms a substantial support base for the NLD party. Suu Kyi’s family and her own past struggles and her ability to provide leadership to NLD and her ability to push for democratic reforms easily captures the imagination of most, despite some obvious failings. There is no other political leader within the NLD or other political parties have at present that matches neither her stature nor the political experience. The other political parties can barely make a dent in the electoral politics of Myanmar, given their lack of political experience, mass appeal and leadership issues. The complex ethnic landscape has not allowed for the growth of political leaders and at present offers little alternative leadership.

Certainly, Suu Kyi at 75 years of age is able to hold the responsibility, but this factor will assume significance for the next round of elections. NLD’s lack of grooming a second rung of leadership, may at a later stage create a vacuum or confusion within the party and the electorate. But for now, she is the best choice to represent her community and infact was also the recipient of some of the ethnic votes, especially in Kachin areas.

Secondly, while the Rohingya and their mass exodus from Rakhine reflected the huge humanitarian crises that brought the spotlight on Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s spirited defence of her country’s position to the international community won her accolades domestically. Gambia taking Myanmar to International Court of Justice and Suu Kyi ‘s defence of the Rohingya’s, where 700,000 has been forced to leave their hearth and home and seek refuge across the borders, as a ‘mere internal armed conflict’ , may have dismayed the world but certainly endeared her to people. This certainly improved the NLD’s electoral prospects given the fact that the fate of Rohingyas mattered so little for the majority population in Myanmar. That she stood up to western cynosure worked in her favour largely.

Thirdly, the Covid-19 pandemic provided an environment where Suu Kyi’s campaign portrayal as the senior family member who looked out for her people touched the right nerve and gave succour to a population that was traumatised with the fear of the spread of coronavirus. During the ongoing pandemic, her videos teaching the Burmese how to wash hands and keep social distance have been popular on Facebook, strengthening her popularity.3

Fourthly, despite the poor governance issues, and limited moves to decrease the military stronghold over the polity, the NLD represents the best choice for people wishing to move towards democratic transition. The military or the Tatmadaw has very little appeal beyond a specific stake holders and in fact the low performance by the USDP, backed by the military is a reflection of this low popularity. The NLD represents whatever slim scope the people have for lessening the military dominance and evolving democratic norms and building independent autonomous institutions. People want a change and despite flaws NLD is the only vehicle of hope.

Fifthly, the ethnic quagmire has only worsened and it seems no closer to any resolution than it was in the pre-2008 constitution days, but the latest and the fourth session of the 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference (UPC) ‘agreeing on the principles and a plan to move the country’s stalled peace process forward under a new government beyond 2020 and also ‘a new plan for building a democratic federal union beyond 2020’ reflects the inadequacies of the measures undertaken. Their lack of cohesion and their internal dissonance did not evoke much faith in their political expediency. Indeed, NLD was the recipient of support from ethnic minority states in 2015 and this time too, they could capitalise on that ongoing instability within the smaller ethnic parties.In 2015 the ethnic groups managed 11% of the votes, but this time, their number went down further attributable to their moving away from NLD.

There was expectation prior to the elections that the ethnic parties would do better this time, because of mergers of different regional outfits within each ethnic state. Some of them had aligned with the NLD in the last elections. But there was disenchantment with the NLD for not adequately taking up their cause. NLD performed well in Kachin state, while Shan Nationalities League for Democracy managed 13 seats in Lower House and two in Upper house, While Arakan National Party garnered 4 seats in upper house and lower house, Mon National Party managed 3 and 2 seats in lower and Upper house respectively. While the ethnic groups appear weak for now, but given their limited resources and support this could be a beginning for building a political presence that could provide a viable leadership in the years to come.

However, it needs to be noted that this time round, elections were not held for 22 seats in the ethnic states given the armed conflicts and more than 1.5 million people among an electorate of 37 million were excluded from the polls, while ethnic candidates were also disqualified. The Arakan National Army has asked for elections in parts of Rakhine.4

Post the election Suu Kyi has reached out to 48 ethnic groups to form part of a Unity government and this would offer a greater scope to push for a federal system. While the overwhelming dominance of NLD and the military remain the collaboration with NLD would allow the ethnic groups to atleast to make an attempt to influence the outcome for a dilution of the military controlled polity that would be a common goal for all the political players.

India Increases Engagement

For India, its engagement with Myanmar has infact assumed greater significance in recent times. Reasons of cross border security concerns have for long dictated India’s close engagement with the Tatmadaw,at the same time, supporting democratic reforms and Suu Kyi as the largest symbol was a natural choice for India. Given the aggression of China and interesting developments in the Bay of Bengal and Indo-Pacific, Indian presence in Myanmar is also coveted by both the armed forces as well as the political forces in Myanmar. Unfortunately, India is slow in creating a strategic space in the region and is evidently outweighed by China, but engaging with any elected government brought in through a free and fair electoral process, and remain a relevant player will be an imperative for India.

The successful visit of the Foreign secretary and Chief of Armed Forces to Myanmar, just prior to the national elections was a reaffirmation of not only the growing political and defence ties that these two neighbours share but the growing depth they wish to see their relationship. The defence cooperation has seen new heights with the submarine that India gave and as is well known India is a very welcome partner in Myanmar and it has able to balance ties with the political and military leadership very convincingly. In days to come the cross- border ties are bound to see further growth and the core of the relationship that rests with the people to people engagement has to be increased to capture the goodwill that exists between the two neighbours.

Endnotes
  1. Official Results Show Another Election Landslide for Myanmar Ruling NLD;,The Irrawaddy, 16 November 2020 at https://www.irrawaddy.com/elections/official-results-show-another-election-landslide-myanmars-ruling-nld.html
  2. San YaminYuang, , ‘Losing Party Keeps Pushing Claims-Election Frauds’The Irrawaddy 21 Nov 2020 at https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/analysis/myanmars-losing-party-keeps-pushing-claims-election-fraud-seeks-overturn-outcome.html
  3. MichalI Lubina, ‘Myanmar Elections: How the West Misread Aung Saa Kyu’, 9DASLINE,6NOV2020 ‘Rebels Call For Election in Parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine Denied Vote’, Eco.Net, Document #2040799. 18 Nov 2020 at https://www.ecoi.net/en/document/2040799.html
    https://www.9dashline.com/article/myanmar-election-how-the-west-misread-aung-san-suu-kyi
  4. ‘Rebels Call For Election in Parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine Denied Vote’, Eco.Net, Document #2040799. 18 Nov 2020 at https://www.ecoi.net/en/document/2040799.html

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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