BURMA will vote on November 8 in its first national elections since a civilian government was introduced in 2011, ending nearly 50 years of military rule. While the elections will be the freest in 25 years there are numerous electoral issues at play peculiar to the country which leave the result of the vote wide open for conjecture. Here are seven factors at play in the pending elections that may surprise readers.
1. Aung San Suu Kyi can’t become president
While the former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi is already a legislator and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party may win a chunk of seats, she is barred from becoming president because she married a Briton and her sons are UK citizens. The former junta introduced these constitutional provisions to prevent her becoming president and the rules still hold.
2. Is popularity waning for the National League for Democracy (NLD)?
This is the source of some conjecture and hard to measure despite the figures from the two previous elections (in 1990 at the annulled general election the NLD won 392 of 492 seats and 52.5 percent of the national vote; in 2011 they won 43 of the 45 seats or 66 percent of the vote). However there has been some recent fumbling which may see voters turn against them:
– the party list has shunned potential big name candidates and does not include a single Muslim, suggesting they have been influenced by hard-line Buddhist elements;
– the NLD banned candidates from speaking to the media for three weeks, thereby suggesting there was a lack of democracy in a pro-democracy party;
– the NLD has not offered an alternative candidate for the presidency even though Suu Kyi can’t run (as explained above);
– while Suu Kyi remains a democracy icon and is widely popular, there are some reports that attitudes towards her remain mixed, particularly on her failure to speak about the treatment of the Rohingya. The Burmese youth are not necessarily guaranteed to vote for her either.
3. Voting is not compulsory in Burma
It may come as a surprise to many that despite not being able to vote for some 20 years, there have been reports of apathy amongst the population about the pending election.
Former Australian ambassador to Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, Trevor Wilson told the ABC, “Some of the people being interviewed are already saying they don’t have time to go and worry about elections and voting and things like that, they’ve got more important things to do like making their living.”
4. Not everyone can vote
While some may be reportedly apathetic about the vote, Burmese authorities have also banned others from taking part all together. Many candidates are disqualified from running, ballots and names on electoral roles are apparently missing, and thousands of migrants, refugees and minority groups, like the Rohingya, will not be allowed to vote.
Independent voices are vital and must be included in public debate.
The UN has repeatedly warned of the authorities’ widespread intimidation campaign. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee said, “This is a watershed moment in the democratic transition of Myanmar and I urge everyone involved to ensure that respect for human rights is front and centre in the run up to the elections, during the elections and following the elections. I have observed worrying trends that have been undermining the democratic space in Myanmar. The arrests, convictions and harassment of civil society and journalists should immediately cease. Independent voices are vital and must be included in public debate.”
5. Vote for change
Whatever way voters choose to place their support, critics believe there is still a strong desire for reform. Despite the lifting of economic sanctions, numerous cosmetic changes in the main cities, the influx of Western businesses, and some investment, the public has become disillusioned with the kind of resurgence they expected in the so-called transition to democracy.
Wilson told the ABC, “One of the problems that people certainly, almost unanimously, think is that the political ties between the ruling party and the military are a problem and that military impunity still exists and the military can get away with human rights abuses and other forms of bad behaviour that really concern people.”
In ethnic areas the lack of any real peace despite talks and ceasefires, the internal displacement of thousands due to the conflict between rebel groups and the government, and the refugees languishing in Thailand are also catalysts for a desire for change.
6. Ethnic parties could be the big winners
Despite the popularity of the NLD, country ethnic parties are expected to pick up a lot of the vote as they are seen to represent local groups and interests. The ruling USDP party is banking on this, hoping it will draw support away from the NLD, which has promoted a “vote for the party, not the candidate” line. However, Suu Kyi has travelled frequently to ethnic areas because she knows how important they may be. It’s likely ethnic parties voted in may have to put their differences aside if they have to team up with a political force within the new parliament in the first past the post system in the country.
Wilson told the ABC, “In the aftermath of the election it’s quite possible that there could be quite a lot of negotiating going on as the main parties try to form alliances with some of the ethnic parties.”
If this is the case then the USDP may have cause for concern as they have benefited from exploiting these regional areas for their jade, teak and other resources.
7. The military is guaranteed 25 percent of seats
A constitutional stipulation states that 25 percent of seats are reserved for armed forces personnel. This gives them a strong position to veto amendments to the constitution.