Myanmar goes to the polls, with the NLD’s mandate at stake

Amid a host of challenges and under circumstances very different from those that prevailed during previous general elections, Myanmar is going to the polls again today.

Although the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) is still favoured to win again this year, it faces stronger headwinds than it did five years ago, when it swept to power in a landslide.

In order to hold onto power, the party will need to win at least 322 seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which combines both the upper and lower houses of parliament. By contrast, its chief rival, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), could form the next government with just 156 seats if it joins forces with the legislature’s 166 military-appointed MPs. In fact, it could win the right to govern with even fewer seats if it forms a coalition with any of the multitude of other parties contesting the election.

Another factor that could have some influence on the outcome is the reduced number of seats. The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw will have 22 fewer seats this year due to the suspension of voting in areas deemed by the Union Election Commission (UEC) to be too unsafe or unstable for polling. Under normal circumstances, there would be 664 seats up for grabs; this year, there are only 642—a reduction that gives the military appointees an even bigger share of the parliamentary pie.

Photo : Sa Yazar Aung

Adding to the uncertainty is a pandemic that has gripped the world. Myanmar has not been spared from Covid-19’s deadly impact: Since the first case was diagnosed on March 23, at least 60,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus, and more than 1,300 have died from the disease. Most of these cases have been recorded since the outbreak of a second wave that began in mid-August. Since then, the numbers have continued to climb, prompting calls from some quarters to suspend the election.

Among those who wanted the election to be postponed was the USDP. When push came to shove, however, it threw itself into campaign mode and fought hard to make inroads against the NLD. At times, these efforts became truly vicious. Numerous violent incidents were reported around the country, including one in Karbo, a village in Sagaing region’s Kanbalu township, where a man was beaten to death by a mob of USDP supporters.   

Such incidents have put the UEC to the test, with critics on all sides accusing it of failing to take action against violence and other violations of election laws. As a body that was formed by the NLD in accordance with the constitution, it has come under especially strong criticism from the USDP, which is, ironically, the party that would probably have the most to lose if those laws were more effectively enforced.

Meanwhile, perennial tensions between the NLD and the Tatmadaw have flared up again in the run-up to the election.  Earlier this week, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, made vague accusations that the UEC was not doing enough to ensure that the upcoming election would be free and fair and warned it to “be careful.” At the same time, he said that the government would be held responsible if there was any trouble. 

Photo : Sai Zaw/Myanmar Now

The government responded with a warning of its own. The day after Min Aung Hlaing made his remarks in an interview with a local media outlet, President’s Office spokesperson Zaw Htay held a press conference to let the commander-in-chief know that he was breaking the law. Under Myanmar’s Civil Services Personnel Law, he said, “Civil services personnel must be free from political affiliation.” This applies to everyone in public service, he implied—even the leader of the all-powerful Tatmadaw.

All of this has led some political analysts to suspect that the Tatmadaw may be gearing up for another coup if it isn’t happy with the election results. And as if that weren’t enough for the NLD to worry about, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi is facing mounting pressure both at home and abroad over its stance on the Rohingya issue and its failure to satisfy the aspirations of ethnic minorities in general. Under NLD leadership, Myanmar has been taken to the Hague to face charges of genocide for military actions taken in Rakhine state, which continues to be the most volatile region in the country. 

As the Tatmadaw’s armed conflict with the Arakan Army (AA) rages on, the NLD has been reminded once again that it can’t afford to just stand back and let the military do its thing. During the campaign period, three of its candidates were abducted by the AA in Toungup township and have yet to be released—a fitting metaphor, perhaps, for a party held hostage by its unfulfilled promises to ethnic people who hoped that NLD rule would usher in an era of peace.

Photo : Khin Hnin Wai/Myanmar Now

If Myanmar’s ethnic peoples have learned anything over the past five years, it’s that they are probably better off relying on themselves. To that end, many smaller ethnic parties have merged to become important political forces in their own right, especially in Kachin, Kayah and Mon states. In these three seats alone, the NLD will face significant challenges for 71 seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.

This means that the NLD will be hard-pressed to come close to winning the 390 seats that it captured while riding on a wave of optimism in the historic 2015 election (the first that it had contested nationwide since 1990). But even if it can’t win the 322 seats it will need to rule outright, all is not lost. There is still the possibility of forming a “national unity government”—an NLD-led coalition of likeminded parties and independents. 

If it comes to this, it might even give the party the kick start it needs to tackle its signature issues. Besides its stalled Panglong initiative, the NLD came to power on promises of amending the undemocratic 2008 constitution. On both counts, however, it has performed poorly, and it remains to be seen if the country’s 37 million eligible voters will be in any mood to give it another five years to make some sort of progress on these two fronts and others. With more than 90 parties in the country, it will have plenty of potential partners to help it advance its agenda. The question, then, is whether the USDP will find them first.

Related Articles

Back to top button