The Myanmar Election: What Can We Expect?

The highly anticipated November 8 in Myanmar is less than a week away, and election watchers are keenly interested to see if pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party wins in a landslide as it did in 1990, or if the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), populated with retired military officers and former junta officials, maintain power. The election represents another critical milestone in Myanmar's transition toward democracy, but the day itself will not be the ultimate determinant of whether Myanmar will progress ahead democratically or slide back into a more militaristic or "disciplined" governing structure. The real test for those who win seats in November will be to ensure that all stakeholders--including the military--are empowered to work within the system and cooperate, despite differing views and skepticism of one another, to maintain the country's political and economic trajectory. With more than 90 parties and thousands of candidates contesting the election, that may be a difficult task.

Election day itself is but one step in a political process that will take nearly six months before resulting in a new government. The Myanmar Union Election Commission (UEC) will announce the official election results on November 22, and the new government will form sometime in March 2016, leaving roughly five months of politicking and jockeying before we know the shape and scope of the new administration--and how the military and USDP view it. This period will be an important indicator of how serious efforts to continue the reforms are, particularly if the November 8 election is widely accepted as credible and the results acknowledged. The day itself should proceed relatively smoothly, though there is a high probability that the results of some seats may remain in question, allegations of fraud will be levied, and small-scale incidents of violence could occur. While many would concede that Myanmar politics would remain problematic regardless of the conduct of election day due to the continued role of the military and a controversial constitution, the current government, particularly UEC, has worked to make the election as credible as possible. The UEC has received technical assistance from international organizations and governments and has Western election observers, the first time in at least 65 years that it has done so. The 2010 election did not include foreign election monitors.

Trying to predict the outcome of the election has been deemed by at least one Myanmar-based media outlet as "lunacy," however, three scenarios are emerging as the most likely outcomes of November 8.

The NLD wins in a landslide

The NLD will have to win 67% of the seats from both chambers of parliament that are not reserved for the military in order to form a government. They will be building on their 2012 by-election win where they won 43 of 44 seats contested and could possibly achieve the same result on a larger scale. The NLD can win in a landslide if it draws support from voters seeking to finally make count their votes from 1990, those that are drawn to Aung San Suu Kyi's popular appeal and legacy borne out of the 1988 uprising and her familial heritage, or, mostly importantly, those that view a vote for the NLD as a vote against the military. Many in Myanmar are drawn to Aung San Suu Kyi's story as the daughter of the country's founder Aung San, and see her as the rightful heir to his leadership.

She and many in her party expect an overwhelming win. With this expectation, Aung San Suu Kyi has made recent overtures to the military and the USDP, emphasizing the importance of the military as an institution and that all participants in the election, both winners and losers, will have a role to play in Myanmar's political future. Since the campaign season kicked off in September, she has attracted thousands of supporters during her campaign appearances, even with inclement weather, threat of attack, and difficulty traveling to rally locations. Additionally, unofficial polling results collected from overseas voting show that the NLD is likely to win in a landslide. The NLD may have won as much as 90% of the vote in Singapore, beating the second place finished by more than 13,000 votes--and the second place Rakhine National Party won only 44 votes. The massive crowds and early voting totals indicate a sweeping NLD victory leading to formation of an NLD government next year.

The NLD wins a slim majority

Despite the NLD's past electoral wins in 1988 and in the 2012 by-election, Myanmar's political landscape has significantly changed, and the outcome of November 8 will not be solely based on the NLD's past track record. Aside from the possibility of electioneering by the ruling party, the NLD has lost some of its shine due to lack of transparency on policies, top-down, hierarchical decision making that has stifled party members' voices and the development of new leaders, and perceived silence on issues impacting Myanmar's ethnic and religious communities, particularly the country's Muslim population. Rising Buddhist nationalism and growing influence of ethnic-based parties will impact their win as well.

Concerns regarding the NLD's highly centralized structure and opaque decision-making have been growing. The most striking example is the NLD's candidate list; many expected well-known prodemocracy activists and groups, including the popular 88 Generation Students, to make the list. However, the NLD cut all but one prospective candidate seeking to run under its banner, causing outrage and consternation. Following this blunder, several regional NLD officers publicly expressed dissatisfaction, went on strike, or resigned in protest. This will have a reverberating effect after the election, particularly if the NLD has to form a coalition and cannot count on these erstwhile allies.

The rise of Buddhist nationalism, led by groups such as 969 and Ma Ba Tha, could pose a direct challenge to the NLD. Since 2012, the Buddhist nationalist movement has gained tremendous public support and influence in parliament, as seen in the recent passing of controversial legislation on race and religion. The NLD has remained quiet on the issue due to its sensitivity as well as its broad support among the electorate. Followers of the movement have distributed pamphlets targeting the NLD, saying the party supports Islam and would fail to protect Buddhists. Ma Ba Tha and 969 have also publicly thrown support behind President Thein Sein and the USDP. The USDP has capitalized on this and may garner support among voters who value religion over politics. Ma Ba Tha and 969's core supporters in rural and impoverished regions of Myanmar may be draw votes from an NLD victory.

Myanmar's ethnic parties may also limit an NLD win. The NLD has failed to conduct consistent or widespread outreach to Myanmar's diverse ethnic nationalities that have witnessed each iteration of national government ignore their cultures, interests, and concerns. Additionally, instead of allying with the parties popular in ethnic nationality areas, the NLD has chosen to run its own candidates, despite assurances to the contrary. This has raised tensions between the NLD and dozens of ethnic parties. Ethnic nationalities, particularly the Rakhine, have criticized Aung San Suu Kyi's lacking and inappropriately timed engagement with them, and have become suspicious of her Bamar background.

The government refutes the election results, quasi-military rule is reinstituted

The echoes of the 1990 election its aftermath still ring in the ear of the NLD and of concerned domestic and international Myanmar watchers. In May 1990, the NLD earned just under 60% of the total popular vote, which translated to 80.8% of seats in parliament in contrast to the junta-backed National Unity Party's 2.1%. The former ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) remained silent for months on the election results, and finally failed to recognize them based on the argument that the original election structure did not stipulate a date for parliament to convene. The SLORC announced the creation of a "Roadmap to a Discipline-Flourishing Democracy," essentially a political do-over for the military regime to ensure that the next election--to be held two decades hence--would produce the results it desired.

Many are expecting the USDP to be electorally annihilated--some USDP candidates, including Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, have stated as much. There is concern that without a safety net for the first time in its rule, the USDP will maneuver to halt the NLD's march to governing power. Additionally, the military has, despite assurances that it will recognize the election results and work with the new government, undertaken efforts to highlight its position of power and concern for the direction of the country, most notably with the quashing of recent constitutional amendment efforts and taking an unofficial yet active role in the purging of Speaker Shwe Mann from the USDP. The current election could play out similarly to 1990, either with a delay of official results, perhaps due to contested seats being deemed "too close to call," or if the military and USDP counter with a deal to amend the constitution or election rules to make the contest more fair. Though such scenarios are unlikely, given the effort the government has put into the contest, precedents in Myanmar's past, as well recent examples from neighboring countries such as Thailand, make this scenario worth preparing for.

Myanmar's political history has been full of unexpected and unwanted surprises, but the November 8 election likely will proceed credibly and well enough for Myanmar's citizens and election watchers to accept the process as a step in the right direction. Though we will not know what the political landscape will look like until March of next year, we will probably see a long-anticipated new government that should resemble what was originally expected in 1990.