How Will the 2020 Election Shape Myanmar’s Democracy?

By The Irrawaddy 12 October 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. It is supposed to be one year until the next general election. The 2015 poll was the first general election in over 50 years that was free and fair and whose results were recognized.

We will discuss to what extent the next election, due in 2020, will meet democratic norms; if it will deliver accurate results; and to what extent it will impact upon shaping free and fair elections, the essence of democracy, in the future. Executive director Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), and vice chair of the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) Ma Noe Noe Htet San join me. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Looking at the history of Myanmar since 1962, the 2015 election was relatively free and fair, and its results were recognized. Though the 1990 election was free and fair, the military regime did not recognize the results. To what extent will the 2020 election be free and fair, and what will be the difficulties?

Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint: It is widely agreed that the 2015 election was aimed at power transfer. It can be said that it was the ultimate aim of the 2015 election. It is time to aim beyond that in the 2020 election.
It is important to make elections become a normal part of the political transition. So it is important to make sure the 2020 election is not postponed because postponing it will impede the political transition.

KZM: Do you see any possibility of that?

SYKSM: Lately, we have heard rumors that the election will be brought forward or postponed. This is an important challenge to political transition. Once such rumors spread, the Union Election Commission (UEC) should take steps to dispel suspicions by saying it plans to hold the election in a specific month. Only then will the suspicions be dispelled.
If the 2015 election was about power transfer, the biggest challenge for the 2020 election is about the degree of democracy. Because the election law was taken from the 2008 Constitution, it was specifically designed [by the military regime] for certain purposes.

Those laws no longer suit the situation in 2020. So the question is how to make it more democratic.
The main challenge concerns the extent to which it can create a level playing field for all the contesting political parties and candidates.

KZM: Can you explain in detail about that law? What barriers and challenges does it present?

SYKSM: The question is how much the UEC, the institution responsible for managing the election, is free and independent. It is the most obvious question. Under the current legal framework, the commission is accountable only to the ruling party. This poses a fundamental question about the credibility of the electoral process.

KZM: [Former President] U Thein Sein’s administration formed the UEC. Is that the case under the current government?

SYKSM: Yes, it is the same.

KZM: So you mean, the UEC needs to be independent?

SYKSM: It appears that it all depends on the behavior of individual members of the UEC. The legal framework allows them to take sides. So, I would say fundamental change should start with amending this legal framework.

KZM: Ma Noe Noe Htet San, the DPNS was established after 1988 but it only contested a few elections. But we heard that the party is taking active steps to contest the 2020 election. What challenges, problems or constraints do you face, including from the UEC?

Noe Noe Htet San: Our understanding is that the party system must be strong to strengthen democracy. To strengthen the party system, laws that regulate parties are necessary. We have seen setbacks regarding the UEC’s regulation of parties. For example, we have to submit applications to the UEC if we want to do something.

As Ko Sai said, the UEC needs to create a level playing field for political parties. It is the UEC’s responsibility to handle problems between elections. Political parties are accountable only to the constituents they represent and have no responsibility to inform any institution [of their activities]. But, what is happening is the UEC restricts the freedom of political parties. For example, it is a widely held view that federalism is important for the country.

So when we planned to provide federalism training together with civil society organizations and other parties, the UEC imposed restrictions.

And the UEC also restricted the township organizing committees [of our party] which are important to strengthen the party. I don’t think it should be one of the duties of the UEC. For parties to thrive and develop, laws and mechanisms should encourage them and not restrict them. There are a lot of questions about the intention of the previous [military] government to create the 2008 Constitution.

[The current government] should have done what it could since the 2015 election. Even if it was difficult for it [to make changes], as it is a political party and used to be the opposition, it understands well the difficulties facing parties. So parties have this question, why [has the National League for Democracy] not made changes while it knows exactly which laws can be reformed?

KZM: Ko Sai, what laws should be amended?

SYKSM: There is a need to review all the five election laws. Some need to be amended along with constitutional reform, and some need to be changed in the long run. For example, the electoral system and constituency sizes need to be changed.

They need to be adjusted in the long run. But for the 2020 election, if we want to make it more democratic and fair, and create equal opportunities for all the contestants, first the commission needs to show it has transparency and is not partisan. To do so, it needs to talk to the parties and the media and release the election schedule.

Then this will quash rumors about the election date and dispel public suspicion. It needs to allow civil society organizations to participate in the electoral process and conduct surveys freely.

And it should release campaign regulations. For example, it needs to outline how the president and ministers can fund their campaigns and if they can use state funds. It needs to handle the voter lists and advance voting. We focus more on the standards of the electoral process rather than which party is in power. What we measure in an election is competitiveness, so all the political parties can contest the election equally. This is the most important part of the election.

KZM: Many requirements are to be fulfilled for that to happen. The current UEC is remote from the media and civil society organizations. It barely grants interviews to the media. Critics say it is even less decisive than its predecessor. So are there any good examples in other countries?

SYKSM: In Indonesia, there is a law that allows civil society organizations and international agencies to monitor the poll. We had no such law. So we copied nearly the whole text and [the provision in Myanmar’s electoral law about election monitoring] is a translation of the Indonesian law.

Indonesia is also a very good example of electoral information. It provides open data.

You can find data about candidates, and citizens can check voter lists easily. All the information is placed online. And voting results at individual polling stations are also posted online. There are fewer opportunities for rigging an election, and, therefore, the more contestants believe in the election, the more meaningful the result will become.

KZM: We have been talking about the importance of a free and fair election. However, the military, without contesting the election, reserves 25 percent of the seats in the Parliament under the Constitution. Does this make it difficult for smaller parties to campaign? What problems do smaller parties face compared to big parties like the NLD and the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP]?

NNHS: A fair election can be held for only 75 percent [of seats]. It removes potential seats from politicians who might want to push through reforms. But then those seats are taken away. So politicians doubt whether the election can still be free and fair. Secondly, the question is whether we have really reached the reform period.

There is a need to address the restrictions on the use of resources. It is unacceptable that some parties are not restricted because of their big size and large numbers of supporters.

On the ground, in elections, people usually choose popular figures rather than those who can really represent them. This will depend on the level of political awareness of the people, the awareness to understand which one is more important—a free and fair election or the popularity of a political party. Without such awareness, no matter which best practice is applied to ensure a free and fair election, there will still be setbacks.

To create a level playing field, parties should solicit public support with democratic thinking. Parties should understand why people elect them and those elected should think about whom they represent. Only then will the election will be meaningful.

KZM: So people should cast their vote based on the capacity of candidates—how much they are willing to serve the interests of the people—not based on their popularity? It is also common in other countries to vote for well-known figures. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi enjoys enormous popularity, people just vote for her NLD without considering the capacity of its candidates.

NNHS: Yes, it has been the case.

KZM: Ko Sai, how much progress will the 2020 election make compared to the 2015 election?

SYKSM: Elections are events in which people vote for someone. We do not link elections to democracy. Elections just decide who will take the administrative duty. Elections alone cannot support democracy. It can be said that elections are a mechanism for rulers to take accountability for their actions. However, thinking only about winning elections, in the long run, means the mechanism of accountability becomes a mechanism of irregularities.

For example, our people think based on individuals and identities like common ethnicities and religions.

These are standards they can easily adopt. I hope elections in 2020 will be more widely representative. If political parties want the elections and the Parliament to represent the society, it is necessary for them to place more emphasis on democratic values, policies, and programs than on ethnicity and religion. Otherwise, the diversity of our society will be ignored. A certain political party may be at an advantage or win the election but it is not a sound foundation for a democratic transition.

KZM: You mean that it does not meet democratic norms if candidates of Bamar political parties win elections in places with a Bamar majority and so do candidates of Kachin parties in Kachin-majority constituencies and Mon parties in Mon-majority areas?

SYKSM: Normally, it is natural for people to vote for those who are of the same religion and ethnicity as them. However, I do not want our people to dwell upon this. I want the people to think about the policies of a certain political party even if Shan people vote for a Shan party. They need to take policies of parties into account and they need to like them.
At present, we cannot eliminate that behavior and it is impractical to urge Shan people to vote for the Pa-O. Political parties need to understand this. Instead of campaigning for the Shan because it is a Shan party or for Chin because it is a Chin party, parties need to campaign on their policies. It is about qualifications. Currently, this is another challenge for the 2020 election.

KZM: It seems that it is too early for our country to get to that stage.

SYKSM: It is very difficult but we need to start this.

KZM: Ko Sai, your group, PACE, conducted a survey on the ground this year. What were your findings?

SYKSM: Our conclusion is that the majority of people vote for candidates based not on policies but on individuals and ethnicity. There are two factors. The first one is party identification. When we asked voters how much they knew about and supported parties, our findings showed that 33 percent of the respondents said they knew and supported the policies of the NLD. Only 3 to 4 percent of the respondents said they knew those of other parties. About 60 percent of the respondents said they did not know much about other parties. We also asked them questions about individuals like the State Counselor and the President and institutions. About 70 percent of the respondents said that they trusted and favored the State Counselor.

KZM: Did you conduct the survey throughout the entire country?

SYKSM: Yes. I asked the respondents which traits they want candidates to possess. Most of the respondents said it was integrity and good intentions that mattered. Whether parties will go in that direction because the public is moving that way, or instead try to correct the path the public is taking, is a challenge for them. If they just try to get more votes, they will not come out of that cycle. It is an important consideration but they should campaign on their policies too. Only then will they get policy-oriented considerations and decisions.

KZM: Ma Noe Noe, for voters, personality is more important than a political party, according to the survey conducted by Ko Sai. People know and trust Daw Aung San Suu Kyi more than the NLD. It is an advantage for her NLD. What are the difficulties for the Democratic Party for New Society in organizational work on the ground?

NNHS: There are a lot of difficulties. For example, when we introduced our programs to the people, they said they would vote for “the mother” [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi]. Idolization and a personality cult thrive in our country. I have pointed out earlier that collective leadership is important to strengthen political systems and democracy.

A good leader alone cannot make progress for a country. Neither can good intentions on their own. Therefore, we need a team of leaders with strong policies. This is important for all political parties. It is more important for a party thinking of leading society.
We need to adopt collective leadership. The lack of collective leadership will exacerbate idolization and personality cults. If parties try, they will be closer to the people, who will understand the parties. We need to give people messages and information and to work for them. People will be aware that no one can decide and work alone, and [understand] who will decide what.

When the public is aware of that, democracy will be stronger. One may consider democracy based on elections and whether they are free or fair, but elections and democracy are different processes. The question is whether there is a democracy if there are elections. Political parties should be aware of this.

KZM: Our country experienced three elections before 1962, in 1952, 1956 and 1960. Political parties competed in these elections democratically. How many elections does our country need before democracy takes root?

SYKSM: It is said that a country needs three or four elections before democracy can take root. Only then will the people know about democracy. But I do not know about Myanmar.

KZM: I think Myanmar will need more than that.

SYKSM: Surely, Myanmar would need more because there are so many problems, including ethnic issues. Maybe five. Only then will people learn about democracy and parties will be stronger and organized.

KZM: For elections to become a tradition that cannot be broken, I estimate it will take six elections, until 2050. Ma Noe Noe, are you standing in the 2020 election?

NNHS: We are not eligible to stand because we returned to Myanmar through the peace process. However, our party members will run. Returnees like our chairman Ko Aung Moe Zaw and I cannot stand.
We do not meet the requirement to live in the country for 10 successive years. We will be able to run in 2025.

SYKSM: The law has limits and restrictions the [military regime] wanted to impose. When we talk about the inclusiveness of elections, we tend to talk about voters but we must also be able to stand for election. All citizens must be able to compete in elections. It is necessary to amend these laws.

KZM: Why has the UEC not amended the law?

SYKSM: We do not see any demand for important democratic reforms from either side. Many political parties have made various attempts concerning elections but we do not see a demand for a fundamental change. I don’t know the answer but what is more worrying is that many parties accept the current law because they think it will benefit them and the loopholes will be an advantage for winning elections.

KZM: The Tatmadaw [military] and the government have to negotiate. Can amendments to the election law have an impact on those relations?

SYKSM: I think people tend to think about the election process and political process separately. If we think of electoral reform as democratic reform, our way of thinking will change.
We can change the qualifications for candidates dramatically. It is political reform. If all the people who participated in politics can stand for election, it will be more representative. I think we need to think of political and electoral reform as linked.

NNHS: When our party returned to Myanmar, we pointed out the problem and discussed it repeatedly with the UEC.

KZM: Was that during the term of former President U Thein Sein?

NNHS: Yes, it was then.

KZM: What was their response?

NNHS: Their response was that it was the Parliament that has the authority to amend the law. When we study the matter, [we can see] it is designed in this way. Enacting laws does not seem to be the duty of the UEC. It seems to work according to the law. It is difficult to talk about this because it has been designed this way. On the other hand, when we talked about this with other parties, they said that the law must be amended in Parliament. Sometimes, procedures and laws are strictly abided by and sometime they are not. This is another question.

KZM: Thanks for your contributions, Ko Sai and Ma Noe Noe. We will have to wait and see what happens in the 2020 election.