A Tale of Two Elections

By The Irrawaddy 17 November 2020

Last week, we followed two elections: one in Myanmar and the other in the US.

In both countries, millions of citizens braved surging COVID-19 epidemics to go out and cast their ballots.

In Myanmar, despite initial concerns of violence, a stern warning to the government from the military chief over the handling of the voting, threats from ethnic armies and incidents of voter intimidation during the campaign period, the election went off peacefully.

To the surprise of many, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won a decisive landslide victory. With the exception of Rakhine, the ruling party performed well in the ethnic states, with even ethnic minority communities voting overwhelmingly for the NLD.

But there were also some encouraging signs for ethnic parties: the fact that merged ethnic parties in Kachin, Mon, Rakhine and Kayah states did well, picking up more seats, bodes well for future elections in Myanmar’s ethnic states, and for the ethnic parties going forward.

So far all signs point to a smooth, peaceful transition to the next administration. After losing the 2015 election to the NLD in a landslide, the then-ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) handed over power. There were some nail-biting moments as we watched and waited, but the transfer of power to the NLD was completed without incident. For the first time in decades, Myanmar had a civilian government. It was hailed as a success story at home and abroad.

In the US, meanwhile, while voting went peacefully, with Joe Biden winning a clear victory in terms of both the popular vote and the Electoral College, President Donald Trump has refused to concede defeat, instead repeating baseless claims of electoral fraud. Repeating the unsubstantiated claims this week, he tweeted, “He [Joe Biden] won because the Election was Rigged.” Indeed, Trump’s refusal to concede the election and agree to voluntarily leave the White House confirms fears many have harbored since long before the election. US newspapers have even talked about a coup and traded theories on the lengths Trump will go to in order to remain in power.

This scenario is reminiscent of the classic pattern of political dysfunction and conflict we associate with third world countries, but we are talking here about a first world superpower—the United States. Indeed, no president in US history has ever refused for so long to concede an election he has obviously lost. Looking on, the rest of the world can only feel grave concern—yes, real concern—and even columnists in the US newspapers have wondered why their country is acting like a failed state.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the US went from one known coronavirus infection to 10 million in less than 10 months. The virus is now spreading exponentially in all regions in the US. As of Monday, 43 of the country’s 50 states had reported at least a 10-percent increase in COVID-19 cases compared to the previous week, according to Johns Hopkins.

The world is in need of leadership to combat the deadly coronavirus, develop a vaccine, and communicate basic rules to people on wearing masks and practicing social distancing—not to mention dozens of other issues of international concern including climate change, reviving the global economy, ending wealth disparity and fighting terrorism.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has sharpened his criticism of Trump’s refusal to cooperate in an orderly transition, warning that, “more people may die” of COVID-19 if the president does not agree to coordinate planning of the mass distribution of a vaccine when it becomes available.

In Myanmar, the military-backed USDP responded to its humiliating election defeat by protesting the outcome and alleging fraud. But we all witnessed the sea of NLD red that rolled across Myanmar, indicating the level of popular support enjoyed by the party. So why would it need to rig the outcome? It doesn’t make sense.

Military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told the media after casting his ballot in Naypyitaw that he would accept a result that reflected the people’s will. His comment came amid concerns over a possible coup due to his attack on the government before the election.

NLD supporters celebrate in Mandalay after initial counts at polling stations indicated the party was headed for an electoral victory after polls closed on the evening of Nov. 8. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

Again, if the soothsayers and Myanmar “analysts” and “specialists” had been right in their predictions of the election outcome, today we would see the NLD with a reduced majority, and the USDP and several military-backed parties, including ethnic parties, enjoying parliamentary gains. These so-called “Myanmar observers” must now reflect on the extent of their knowledge of the country’s politics. They should realize that in order to comment meaningfully on Myanmar issues, one must offer more than mere divisive suppositions that pit the Burman Buddhist majority against other ethnic minorities.

Except for some townships and villages in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states where voting was canceled for security reasons, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities voted peacefully in the election. (The military has welcomed a call by the Arakan Army, a Rakhine rebel group, to hold by-elections as compensation in areas where the polls could not be held. The UEC also guaranteed to hold them in the near future.)

The simple fact is that governments and regional leaders have congratulated Myanmar on its successful staging of the election. Yangon-based embassies, including the US Embassy, were among those offering congratulations.

Right after Election Day, however, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Myanmar’s election an important step toward democratization but also expressed concerns about the process.

“The United States will continue to closely monitor the electoral process,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We call on all relevant authorities to ensure tabulation of votes and resolution of complaints is undertaken in a transparent and credible manner.”

A few days later, Pompeo alarmed many US citizens when, commenting on his own country’s election, he insisted, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” He added: “All right? We’re ready.”

The secretary was replying to a Fox News reporter’s question about whether the State Department is preparing to work with the Biden transition team—and whether a delay could raise a potential national security risk or hinder a smooth transfer of power. Pompeo did not respond directly to that question, implying instead that a transition won’t be needed.

Pompeo is insisting that the US election has not been decided. He also predicted that President Trump would prevail, backing his boss’s reluctance to begin the transition to President-elect Biden’s administration.

In spite of some severe shortcomings, in particular the cancellation of voting in certain ethnic minority regions, by and large, Myanmar’s election was freer, more democratic and more inclusive than the US vote. When we evaluate elections around the world as exercises in democracy, it’s worth remembering that in 2016, Hillary Clinton received 3 million more votes than Trump, but still lost the election by failing to win the Electoral College, costing her the opportunity to become the first female US president.

It is time that Myanmar’s friends, near and far, begin to appreciate that while often still turbulent, the political process in once military-ruled Myanmar is now capable of delivering a successful election and a peaceful transition of power.

The country and people are eager to move forward and deserve to be listened to. Myanmar should no longer be patronized and lectured to, because it is no longer under the repressive pariah military regimes of the past. In dealing with Myanmar, it is no longer good enough to view the country through the lens of colonialism and white supremacy.

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