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On Sunday 8th November Burma will go to the polls in what is expected to be the most important elections in the country’s history. For the first time, the military junta seem prepared to hand over a substantial amount of power to the winner. This is in stark contrast to the elections of 1990, in which after the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide 80% of the seats in the Hluttaw (parliament) but the ruling military class annulled the election, having already placed leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. The military continued their rule for 20 years until 2010, when in the face of continued domestic and international pressure, they allowed a pseudo-civilian election, in which the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) formed a government. The NLD boycotted the election.
The political landscape in Burma has changed a great deal over the last few years and this election includes 6065 candidates across 91 different parties, all vying for the 498 seats across the House of Representatives (330) and the House of Nationalities (168). The two largest parties will be the incumbent USDP and the NLD, who believe that they can repeat their electoral success of 1990. Burma employs a first-past-the-post electoral system which, as in the United Kingdom, can lead to disproportionately strong majorities: in 1990 the NLD won 81% of the seats with just 52.5% of the popular vote.
Free and fair?
It is worth noting that nobody is expecting a western-style liberal democratic election on Sunday. The biggest optimists are simply hoping for the flawed process to roughly reflect the will of the people. These optimists are hopeful that the 10,500 domestic and international observers – including 150 monitors from all 28 EU member states – will force the military to respect the democratic will of the people of Burma.
This optimism is not justified. Although Burma’s ‘roadmap to democracy’ has been praised internationally, it remains one of the least free countries in the world. Freedom House gives the country an index rating of six out of seven (with one being the most free and seven the least) – putting the country on a par with states such as Iran, Libya, and Yemen. Although it is worth noting that this represents an upward trend from 2010, in which the country scored seven and was in the “worst of the worst” category.
On 3rd November The Irrawaddy reported that Thant Zin Aung, director of the Forward Institute, a voter awareness group, suggested that Burma needed more than ten times the observers that have been promised for an appropriate inspection. Furthermore, Suu Kyi, who remains the leader of the NLD, has submitted 100 complaints with the electoral commission over violations of election rules, such as “the destruction of party billboards, the late-night burglary of a candidate’s office, official obstruction preventing the party from securing campaign venues, and numerous instances of harassment”. These complaints are, however, unlikely to resonate with the electoral commission, which Human Rights Watch has identified as a key concern, suggesting that it lacks both independence and impartiality.
The biggest indicator that the election will not be free and fair is the removal of voting rights for the temporary registration card – also known as “white card” – holders, causing the disenfranchisement of 600,000 to 1 million Rohingya Muslims, as well as the striking off of all Muslim candidates in the face of the powerful ultranationalist Buddhist movement. This exclusion of the Rohingyas and the wider Muslim community in general has caused Yanghee Lee, a UN rights investigator to question whether the Sunday’s poll can be considered free and fair. Even the NLD has been shamefully silent on the plight of Muslims in Burma, as it is considered to be politically damaging with the Buddhist vote.
Furthermore, The Irrawaddy reports that concerns about stability will prevent a large number of people from voting: “In Shan State, voting will not occur in all of part of the 17 townships because of fighting between the Burma Army and the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army – North, which kicked off in early October and has since displaced thousands of civilians”. Those outside Shan State may also have trouble at the ballot, as incredibly, 3 days before the election, the voter registration list is still incomplete. Radio Free Asia reports that “many of those whose names are missing have tried repeatedly to ensure their names appear”. The mere existence of an election with mass participation is, of course, a step in the right direction, but there are many signs that point towards a large part of the community being excluded from the political process.
What will be the result of Sunday’s poll?
As readers in the United Kingdom well know, predicting the result of a first-past-the-post election is not easy as it is very difficult to remedy national popularity with support within an individual constituency. To make the water even muddier, Burma does not allow opinion polling so there is very little evidence to form an accurate prediction.
The NLD will point to their landslide victory in 1990 in which they took 392 of the 492 seats, hoping for a similarly resounding result. However, Burma has changed a lot in the last 25 years. They remain confident of doing extremely well in areas in which are dominated by Bamars, but to achieve anything like an absolute majority, they must make gains in the states with a large ethnic minority presence. However, issues such as the ultranationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha who try to paint the NLD as “Muslim lovers” to the Buddhist majority remain a wildcard that could play an important role in the election. The NLD will also point towards their successes in the 2012 by-elections, in which they won 43 of the available 46 seats, although these gains were mostly in Bamar majority areas.
Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst, suggests that “assuming that there is no major fraud in the election, I think it’s very clear that the NLD will be the largest party in parliament, probably by quite a long way”. However, simply being the largest party in parliament, or even having an absolute majority, does not guarantee that the NLD would be able to make any meaningful changes in Burma. One quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the army and to make any form of constitutional amendment, article 436 of the constitution decrees that there must be a vote “of more than 75% of all the representatives” in the House of Representatives. That is to say, the army has the power to block any constitutional amendment. Moreover, since the current ruling party, the USDP, is sponsored by the army, it stacks the deck against the NLD, meaning that the USDP would need far less seats to command a majority. To have 51% of the seats in parliament, the NLD must win two-thirds of the seats in the election.
It is also worth noting that even if the NLD do win and are able to yield reasonable power in parliament, it may not help the situation of the ethnic minorities within the country. Suu Kyi’s silence on the plight of the Rohingya has seen her come in for widespread criticism and many believe that she holds anti-Muslim sentiment. Furthermore, the issues which the ethnic minorities wish to discuss are unlikely to be on the table after the election. On a HART trip to Shan State in May of this year we were told that “the ethnic people want a federal system, and that is what they want to be able to discuss. Instead, the unitary system continues to expand”. There seems little prospect of the minorities attaining the devolution they desire, regardless of Sunday’s result.
One prediction that can be made with certainty is that Suu Kyi will not be the new president. Article 59(f) of the constitution dictates that the president cannot have a foreign spouse or children – Suu Kyi’s late husband was British and her two children have dual citizenship. Again, any attempt to change this could be easily vetoed by the military. She has, however, insisted that if her party is victorious, she will still run Burma in a post “above the president”.
Despite this, it is likely that the NLD will be able to push through a candidate for president. The parliament votes for their choice of president from three that are put forward in late-March and Horsey suggests that “the NLD does not require 51% of the seats to run the country, to form an administration. Probably around 40% of the parliament will be enough to select the president in the three-candidate race”. The NLD are keeping their potential nomination close to their chest, but whoever it is will have to work around the army’s continued presence in Burma. Even though this is likely to be one of the biggest power transfers in Burma’s history, important parts of the executive such as the ministries of defence, home affairs, and border affairs are chosen by the military (and are constitutionally protected). Ultimately, Sunday’s poll has the chance to show the world that the people of Burma are ready for fundamental change, but do not expect it to be the end of a robust military presence in the governance of the country.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.