How to Watch Myanmar's 2015 Elections

by Rachel Wagley
August 6, 2015

Myanmar’s upcoming election in November 2015 will be a bellwether for the government’s willingness to incorporate its entire population into a more meaningful political system. In this NBR commentary, Rachel Wagley analyzes the electoral process, constitutional barriers to democratic governance, and ethnic disenfranchisement.

By Rachel Wagley

August 6, 2015

On November 8, 2015, Myanmar’s citizens will head to the polls for what many analysts are calling the country’s most free and fair election since 1990. The comparison is hardly a complimentary one. The 1990 election took place under martial law, and when the National League for Democracy (NLD)—the opposition party led by national icon Aung San Suu Kyi—swept to victory in the face of persecution, the regime refused to seat the elected parliamentarians.

This time, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has publicly committed to respect the election results. Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) has demonstrated its commitment to fairer elections by consenting to several important reforms. The NLD is expected to win the majority of parliamentary seats in Myanmar’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which favors that party. For reasons unknown, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) did not replace the first-past-the-post system with a proportional representation system that would have increased its own viability in the polls.

Despite these reassuring signs, constitutional and procedural barriers to a free and fair election persist. It is impossible for the country’s quasi-civilian government to pull off a truly democratic election because the 2008 constitution enshrines military power into the political system. The powerful Ministries of Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs are all controlled by the military. Many parliamentarians from the USDP are former military leaders who shed their uniforms for civilian garb after years of leadership in the corrupt and violent regime. Wary that the military’s position in government could negatively influence international perspectives on the significance of the election, the Myanmar government has signed a one-year contract with a U.S. lobbying firm that will represent the government to U.S. Congress.

The election represents a precarious moment in Myanmar’s history. The campaign season will be shaped by politicking between the USDP, NLD, and a fleet of ethnic parties; discriminatory barriers to minority participation; an extremist Buddhist movement that aggressively undermines parties that refuse to support oppressive measures against Rohingya Muslims; and a widening ideological gap between the military and the USDP—a party that the military created but no longer securely controls. Much of the electorate, influenced by years of propaganda from the regime, a substandard education system, and technological isolation from the outside world, lacks a coherent understanding of the election process, government structures and institutions, and the tenants of a democratic society. Nonetheless, the election represents an electrifying opportunity for the country to diversify its political voices and begin to deconstruct the military’s powerful influence.

Constitutional barriers to fair representation. Debate over Myanmar’s constitution has defined the pre-election season. The NLD has campaigned ardently to amend the document, which blocks Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. Section 59(f), written specifically to keep Suu Kyi out of power, precludes citizens with foreign spouses or children from becoming president.

In its intensive review of Myanmar’s constitution, the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law described the charter as the “most entrenched and difficult to change in the world.” The constitution guarantees active military officers 25% of parliamentary seats, and all constitutional amendments must earn a supermajority of over 75% of the parliamentary vote. This gives the military operative veto power over any amendment.

In spring 2015, the USDP, NLD, and ethnic representatives became odd bedfellows in a high-profile campaign to reform the constitutional amendment process. In subtle and gradual ways, the USDP has recently distanced itself from the parliament’s military bloc. The military bloc, which has repeatedly voiced its intent to stay in power, vetoed the amendment proposal in June 2015. In the wake of the vote, Brigadier General Tin San Hlaing defended the military’s stake in parliament and argued that “if these articles really need to be amended, the military representatives would not hesitate to do so.” Because of these restrictions to a fair election, the NLD did not publicly announce whether it would contest the race until the constitutional campaign proved a failure.

The military additionally blocked an amendment backed by members of parliament representing ethnic minority parties to grant regional and state legislatures the power to nominate their own chief ministers and remove these chief ministers with a two-thirds majority. (The country is divided into seven Burman-dominant regions and seven ethnic-dominant states.) Currently, the president both nominates and ratifies chief ministers from each state and region, a system that naturally results in hand-picked chief ministers who are beholden to the executive. Ethnic representatives maintain that granting local legislatures the power to weigh in on the chief minister selection process is intrinsically necessary for legitimate local governance and a proper balance of powers.

Up for election. Excluding reserved seating for the military, all of the country’s other seats are up for grabs in this election: 168 seats in the upper house (Amyotha Hluttaw), 330 seats in the lower house (Pyithu Hluttaw), 644 seats in the regional and state legislatures, and 29 ethnic minority positions in the regional and state legislatures. As many as 83 registered political parties may compete for these spots.

Contrary to popular belief—even in Myanmar— the presidency is not up for election in November. The national legislature will be seated within 90 days of the election, and three presidential candidates will then be selected by the majority parties in the lower and upper houses and the military bloc in both houses. The parliament elects its president from this pool of three candidates. The remaining candidates become the country’s two vice presidents, a process that guarantees a military candidate occupies one of the country’s top executive positions.

The NLD has a good chance of winning legislative majorities in both houses, given the first-past-the-post system, the unpopularity of the USDP, and the NLD’s renewed efforts to hone its election strategy. This would give the party an opportunity to run two presidential candidates. Even if the USDP and military were able to join forces to block these candidates and elect their own, the NLD would still control both vice presidential positions.

Unable to run for president, Suu Kyi has not yet endorsed a second-choice candidate for the NLD. Some NLD observers have criticized Suu Kyi for working too closely with the USDP over the past three years while failing to develop new and younger leadership in her own party. But since the military blocked the June 2015 constitutional reform campaign, the NLD appears to have concluded that partnering with the USDP is unlikely to sway the military.

Many international media reports have speculated that the NLD might run a compromise candidate like USDP parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, but the NLD would have very little reason not to run its own candidates in the event of an electoral sweep. The months between the November election and the selection of a president will be tense. Successful politicking and careful nominations could have the power to determine whether the country embraces or rejects a more egalitarian future.

The credibility of the Union Election Commission (UEC). Myanmar’s elections are monitored and managed by the UEC. The commission, chaired by a former military leader, has not earned the public trust. Despite overseeing the 2012 election that permitted the NLD to sweep the polls, former military officers still staff many local election offices and the commission is closely aligned with the USDP. There is some concern that the USDP has been allowed to offer bribes to supporters and organize rallies and door-to-door drives that may violate campaign rules. Human Rights Watch warned in 2014 that the commission was “threatening and intimidating” the NLD.

To its credit, the UEC has recently approved changes to some of its stringent election rules at the appeal of the NLD and ethnic parties. These changes include improved advance voting measures and an expansion of the campaign period to 60 days in order to give lesser-known candidates more time to increase their visibility. The commission has reduced the cost of candidacy, and the 300,000 kyat (approximately $240) it costs to enter the race is now refundable to candidates who receive at least 12.5% of the vote. In April 2015, eight ethnic minority members were added to the commission in an effort to make the body more credible.

Other electoral reforms that would help advance a free and fair process have been rejected. The UEC rejected a proposal to only appoint commission members that have been independent of any party affiliation for at least five years. Candidates seeking to submit formal complaints must pay a prohibitively high and nonrefundable 500,000 kyat. In July 2015, the commission inexplicably allowed cabinet members, deputy ministers, and high-level officials to begin campaigning ahead of the official campaign period.

Most problematically, the UEC has rejected requests to lift restrictions on campaign rallies and speeches, all of which must be pre-approved by subcommissions. Rally requests must include the names and locations of participants and speakers—a menacing demand in a country where authorities continue to arrest people for their political positions.

Moreover, it is unclear how campaigning and voting at military sites will be handled, though past experience suggests this may be tightly controlled by the military regardless of relevant election bylaws. While the UEC has approved the assistance of international observers, the inability or unwillingness of international observers to restrict violence and corruption was on full display during the 2014 census. The census was deeply controversial and divisive, inciting ethno-religious violence in Rakhine State, enabling police violence, and utilizing a flawed consultation process that ignored minority voices.

The UEC also exercises control over party registration. In May 2015, the UEC rejected the application of the Women’s Party, asking the party to make its name less inclusive. The party, established by ethnic Mon women with the intent to increase the participation of women in politics nationwide, was obliged to change its name to “Women’s Party (Mon).”

Voter rolls. The commission’s arduous task of collecting accurate voter lists threatens to delegitimize election results. Currently, 32 million people of the nation’s estimated population of 54 million are registered to vote. Many townships in ethnic areas have not been surveyed because the commission has designated these areas unstable.

Preliminary voting lists are incredibly inaccurate, a fact that the UEC readily admits. The NLD estimates that voter lists are 30%–80% inaccurate, depending on the area. Election bylaws mandate that voters submit corrections in person, a challenging rule for low-income and rural populations. The UEC has said that it will not postpone the election due to erroneous voter rolls, and has called on the NLD and other political parties to help fix the flawed lists.

Ethnic minorities disenfranchised. Over the past year, more than one million ethnic minorities have been disenfranchised as a result of widespread persecution and racism. President Thein Sein decided to grant national ID cards to Rohingya Muslims in February 2015. This enraged Myanmar’s notorious Ma Ba Tha, a nationalistic Buddhist movement that promotes ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority, pushes its legislative agenda through intimidation and violence, and threatens a culture of pluralism in the country. Pushback from the Ma Ba Tha caused the president to quickly reverse his decision. The UEC then began a drive to require political parties to remove Rohingya from their membership lists.

In addition to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, one hundred thousand persons of Chinese and Indian descent have also been stripped of the right to vote. Many people in Myanmar—mainly underprivileged residents, internally displaced people, migrant laborers, and those living in conflict zones—lack necessary documentation and the means to acquire it.

Conflict zones excluded. he commission reserves the right to arbitrarily block certain townships and provinces from voting if they are determined to be insecure—a highly political determination for which the commission has not provided any criterion. The UEC plans to announce which townships will be able to vote a mere one or two weeks ahead of the election. Because government forces are currently engaged in war with armed groups associated with the Kachin, Shan, and Wa ethnicities, civilians living in these territories will likely be disenfranchised. During the 2010 elections, many townships were barred from voting, and election-related violence, largely initiated by Myanmar’s special security forces, proliferated in ethnic states.

Lobbying for ethnic representation. Even minorities who do have the right to vote face an uphill battle to secure proper political representation. Sizable minority populations are allowed to elect special representatives to regional and state legislatures. But the UEC does not fully operate in ethnic regions. The International Crisis Group has reported that ethnic groups have had to survey their own populations and collect evidence for eligibility for special representation. Because many ethnic minorities have erroneous ID cards or none at all, these communities may be marginalized unless they can gather the resources to successfully lobby on their own behalf.

Police power. In July 2015, the Myanmar Police Force began recruiting over twenty thousand special police to provide security at polling stations. The country’s police force is frequently implicated in serious crimes against protestors and ethnic minorities, and the role it played in the 2014 census led to instances of abuse.

Using the country’s draconian protest and overnight registration laws, police crack down heavily on political protestors, employees of civil society organizations, and low-income communities. The number of political prisoners in Myanmar has increased steadily over the past year. In recent months, students and those protesting the military’s veto of constitutional reform have been especially targeted. Whether the police will restrain themselves from arbitrary violence and political arrests, particularly in minority areas, will be one of the most fundamental tests of the Myanmar government’s alleged commitment to a democratic election.

Censored press. Myanmar’s journalists are expressing concern that the government will repress political reporting during the election, targeting reporters who cover corruption, the current administration, and the military. Many reporters have been harassed, arrested, or charged with defamation in 2015 and must operate under government surveillance. While expanded media freedoms have been hailed by the international community as one of the country’s most salient steps away from authoritarian rule, the government has not stopped arresting and charging journalists. In 2014, authorities began curtailing freedoms of speech and expression with renewed vigor, forcing journalists to self-censor.

Conclusion. The November election will be a bellwether for the Myanmar government’s willingness to incorporate its entire population into a more meaningful political system. When the country took its first steps toward liberalization in 2011, many in the international community eagerly described it as a foreign policy success story. This assessment was made too early—over the past year, the country’s transitional reforms have in many cases regressed, and barriers to democratic governance have not been lifted. Even if the NLD wins a parliamentary majority, it is unclear whether the party is equipped to manage the country’s grave economic and social challenges. Myanmar has many constituencies pushing for various conceptions of democracy, but these groups frequently allow ideological, historic, and ethnic differences to obstruct collaboration. Nonetheless, if pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties win substantial political power in November’s election, the race could mark a notable turning point for a country long plagued by repressive authoritarian rule.