Myanmar, August 20, 2015: In less than three months, Myanmar’s fragile, half-formed democracy will be tested by the first election to be contested by all comers since 1990.
While at first blush, the poll looks like a two-horse race between the military-backed government and the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the situation is far more complex.
Myanmar has seven stand-alone ethnic states, four of which have sizable Christian populations.
These could hold the keys to power with dozens of locally based parties expected to win seats in the 440-member lower house, making a coalition the only option for Suu Kyi’s party to take control of parliament.
The situation has been further complicated in recent weeks. First, massive flooding has already cost more than 100 lives and is likely to further affect more than half a million people. The wreckage could make it difficult for voters to reach polling stations in a country with a still largely primitive infrastructure.
Suu Kyi has already addressed this issue, pointing to a similar situation in 2008 following the devastation left by Cyclone Nargis. A vote on Myanmar’s constitution was held only six weeks after that disaster and, as Suu Kyi said in a video on her Facebook page, it “raised very many questions about the effectiveness of that referendum, about how acceptable the results of that referendum were.”
It remains unclear just how much damage the recent floods have caused, but with at least 600,000 people seriously affected — and the wet season not yet over — it will likely persist as an issue.
More explosively, there has been an internal bloodletting by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The party leadership on Aug. 13 removed the nation’s No. 2 politician and one-time presidential hopeful, lower house speaker Shwe Mann, from all party positions. While he has so far retained his role in the legislature, there were rumors that fresh moves were afoot to dump him from parliament and the speaker’s job as well.
All this almost certainly ensures incumbent Thein Sein a second term as president, which only a year ago he had vowed not to seek.
This kind of undemocratic behavior, in a ruling party still dominated by members of the former military junta, reeks of the Burma of yesteryear. And most observers believe that, behind the scenes, the dark shadow of the country’s long-term dictator Than Shwe continues to loom. Many people believe he remains firmly in control of the levers of power.
A game of seats
At the weekend, Thein Sein’s spokesman said Shwe Mann’s “crime” was that he had become too close to other parties. There has been talk in recent months that the speaker was seeking to make a deal with Suu Kyi that would have seen him elected president and her selected to be the new speaker. The NLD leader is barred from the president’s job, according to Myanmar’s constitution, because she has a foreign spouse and children.
Although the USDP appears fractured, it has a singular vested interest in maintaining a firm grip on power. And it can be expected to put up a united front for the election, even if it appears weakened in the eyes of the voting public.
The real game remains whether the NLD can gain a majority in the parliament despite another constitutional handicap: 25 percent of seats are reserved for the military.
The distribution of seats in Myanmar gives the seven states outsized representation. Rather than seats being decided more or less equally on a population basis, they are based on the nation’s traditional townships with about 30 percent of the seats in Myanmar’s parliament from the seven states.
Electorates in the states versus, say, Yangon are generally far smaller in terms of population. So even if there were little support for the ruling USDP, the NLD would struggle to gain a majority of the remaining 75 percent of seats that it can contest.
Support for the NLD remains strongest in the center of the country around Myanmar’s two biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay. The NLD’s ability to win enough votes nationwide to gain more seats remains untested since it did not participate in the 2010 election.
That was Myanmar’s first poll since the NLD’s landslide election victory in 1990. A coup d’etat led by Than Shwe annulled the results and the NLD was suppressed, condemning the nation to another two decades of military rule.
As one senior politician from Shan state put it: “The Lady (Suu Kyi) certainly gets big crowds everywhere she goes around the country, but it’s another question as to whether people will vote for her.”
She also has long been criticized for not speaking out on behalf of ethnic minorities. Most recently it has been her sustained silence on the plight of the Muslim Rohingya people during the refugee crisis that came to light earlier this year.
Myanmar has four states with large Christian populations — Chin, Kachin, Kayin (or Karen) and Kayah. And significant parts of Sagaing region, which sits between China and Kachin, are also Christian. The other three states are Shan, Mon and Rakhine — the last home to the disenfranchised Rohingya Muslim minority.
All of the state-based parties have the benefit of incumbency and experience in campaigning, which could reap more rewards this time around.
At present the two biggest state-based parties in the lower house are the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, which holds 12 seats, and the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, which has eight seats. Various other parties across all the states hold between one and six seats. A larger number of parties are expected to heavily contest the pole this time around. It is said that the USDP is backing some of them as spoilers.
Already, 21 of the major state-based parties have formed an alliance that could well hold the balance of power after the Nov. 8 election.
Myanmar is very much a Buddhist country with a strong majority of 80-90 percent of its population identifying with the religion. But Christianity makes up, by far, the largest religious minority.
This is a nation where ethnic identity and religion are generally synonymous, putting politicians from those religions in a unique position. And that is likely to hold true if — and it is a big “if” — the USDP continues to play fair.