With the 2020 elections looming, the National League for Democracy looks set to bag an electoral majority again. This may not deter other parties from poking holes in the NLD’s performance legitimacy
On 8 November, Myanmar will join the ranks of countries conducting elections even while braving the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the 2015 general elections, Myanmar voters chose from among 91 political parties and 310 independent candidates contesting for seats in parliament. Yet parties and candidates were well aware of the overwhelming sentiment among voters in favour of electing the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power.
In 2020, there is widespread expectation that the NLD will be returned to office, albeit with a smaller majority. Political parties, and in particular ethnic parties, are now strategising on how to gain a larger share of seats in parliament. But apart from the two giants – the NLD and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – few of the 96 parties currently registered with the Union Election Commission as of 28 July have the resources and drive to run nationwide campaigns and to win seats at the Union level.
As a result, party mergers and alliances have emerged as a trend. While ethnic parties have taken notable and successful first steps in this direction, even the USDP has sought alliances with smaller parties as this year’s elections approach. Some new entrants, such as the People’s Party, led by political activist and former student leader of the 1988 democracy uprising U Ko Ko Gyi, and the People’s Pioneer Party, led by former NLD legislator Dr Thet Thet Khine, are seeking votes in the various ethnic regions of Myanmar. This quest may lead them to form electoral partnerships in different regions across the country.
Regardless of alliances, grievances, and aspirations, a number of broad issues confront all parties contesting the 2020 elections as they launch their campaigns.
The NLD kicked off the announcements of candidate lists on July 23, setting off a wave of speculation in reaction to the inclusion of two Muslim candidates on its list. This move is welcome, as no major political party fielded a Muslim candidate in 2015. The move now indicates that the NLD is aware of both the domestic and the external implications of including a diverse array of candidates across constituencies. The NLD has also lined up more women candidates than in 2015, as well as ethnic candidates.
At the same time, electoral inclusion is not only a matter of candidates selected to run. It also involves who gets to vote, exactly. Currently, polling is set to take place in all of the country’s 330 townships, including conflict areas, although analysts project that the Union Election Commission may suspend voting in those latter areas closer to the election date.
Inequalities of two different sorts will also be the focus of election platforms. Covid-19 has shown up inequalities across various communities in Myanmar, with the blue-collar and informal sector workers bearing the brunt of the economic slowdown. Voters in the ethnic regions are also seeking to redress inequalities of representation at the Union and local levels, so that policies and decisions better reflect their needs and concerns.
The NLD’s strong electoral legitimacy following the 2015 polls has led to projections of the near-certainty that it will win an electoral majority in 2020. Still, other parties will certainly try to poke holes in the looming edifice that is the NLD’s performance legitimacy, including legacy issues such as the peace talks with ethnic armed groups and the Rohingya situation.
Democracy and its meaning for the Myanmar populace is undergoing a rethink as voices and expression continue to be raised amidst restrictions.
A large part of this will be played out in the media – especially in social media. Pundits assessing the country’s challenges and prospects will also need to bear in mind what U Lei Thamar (Mr Farmer) or Daw Zaythae (Madam Shopkeeper) need and want from a government that is usually far removed from their daily lives. People in semi-urban and rural areas may thus become the target of intense campaigning. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s power to rally support – in person and on Facebook – is the NLD’s greatest asset. Should her party’s election platform on socio-economic issues be perceived as not sufficiently concrete, she may also become the focal point to whom people express their concerns and grievances.
Whither Myanmar post-2020?
Progress toward a modern developed nation has been at the centre of the country’s nation-building agenda since independence. This agenda has gone through several iterations. Myanmar is still striving towards that goal, now in an unfavourable international geopolitical climate.
Democracy and its meaning for the Myanmar populace is also undergoing a rethink as voices and expression continue to be raised amidst restrictions. Yet the international community’s perceptions of and responses to the state of human rights and democracy in Myanmar have shaped domestic attitudes, which are now in favour of a potential turn inward. This is where the NLD, when it receives a mandate to continue working on Myanmar’s transformation, will need to calibrate pronouncements by its leading figures, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, to emphasise the fact that the country’s policy responses are in sync with domestic and external exigencies.
Moe Thuzar is Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.