From the Archive

2015 Election: The Countdown Begins

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 6 November 2017

Two years ago, the country’s much-anticipated general election was held on Nov. 8. The Irrawaddy revisits this cover story from August 2015 about Myanmar people’s hopes during the election and post-election periods.

YANGON — In recent times, general elections in Myanmar have been cursed. The results of the 1990 election were annulled by the previous military regime after the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won in a landslide.

The following national election held in 2010 was rigged to favor the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), with reports of widespread voting irregularities.

Both elections failed to usher in the much-needed democratic reforms yearned for by the vast majority of Myanmar citizens.

Whether or not the upcoming national election on November 8 will be similarly blighted is still a burning question among Myanmar voters amid their collective electoral trauma.

But major impediments to holding a free, fair and credible vote remain, not least of which is the country’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

Article 59(f) of the Constitution bars popular opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, regardless of the electoral outcome in November. The charter also reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees, effectively providing them with a veto over major amendments to the Constitution—which require a 75 percent majority of parliamentary votes.

The military’s political role is further cemented by a constitutional provision mandating that the ministers of Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs, be army appointees.

Furthermore, the Union Election Commission (UEC), tasked with organizing and overseeing the nationwide poll, is chaired by a former military general who is also a former lawmaker with the ruling USDP.

But despite these undemocratic restrictions, the expectation of a transparent electoral process lingers on for Myanmar people.

One positive of recent times was the handling of the 2012 by-election, broadly considered to be a credible poll, in which the NLD won 43 of the 44 constituencies it contested. The ruling USDP claimed a solitary seat of the 45 constituencies on offer.

However critics contended that President U Thein Sein’s government had needed to hold a fair poll, which saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi win a seat in the legislature, in order to convince skeptics, at home and abroad, that the reform process was genuine.

Nevertheless, the by-election was one small but encouraging step in the country’s slow-burning transition to democracy and likely encouraged many political parties to contest the 2015 national election.

The 2012 result was also clear proof of the wide support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD—a serious concern for the ruling party. If this year’s election is similarly credible, the NLD and other pro-democracy parties are likely to perform strongly.

With greater numbers in Parliament, the NLD and other ethnic political parties will be able to push for legislative changes that benefit Myanmar’s citizens.

It remains difficult, however, to foresee radical changes, particularly to the Constitution, considering the ongoing presence of a military bloc in Parliament. The main, self-ascribed duty of these unelected MPs is to defend the 2008 charter recently described by The Economist as an “army-drafted monstrosity.”

With a more diverse Union Parliament expected following the election, the military is perhaps even more unlikely to relinquish its political foothold. Any return to the barracks would take time.

Thus, the post-election period will be as delicate as it will be crucial. If the democratic opposition and ethnic parties win a parliamentary majority, all eyes will turn to the USDP and the military as to whether they accept the result.

Myanmar people don’t want to relive the bitter experience of the 1990 election.

Even with a new government formed in 2016, a genuine dialogue between key political and military leaders will be necessary to address the country’s myriad challenges.

Until now, the incumbent president U Thein Sein has shown little interest in such a dialogue. Talks held in recent months between the president, the army chief, parliamentary speakers, an ethnic representative and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were merely superficial.

Like it or not, the result of the upcoming election will have a direct impact on every individual in Myanmar and on the country’s foreign relations.

The result will shape Myanmar’s future, though it may not herald the radical political shift that many have fought—and died—for.