Originally Published 2015-11-07 10:23:15 Published on Nov 07, 2015
For most people, Myanmar's Sunday election is about change for the better. But there is much at stake than just winning. What impacts will the election have on the socio-political fabrics of the country at a time when there are growing societal divides on religious and ethnic lines.
Myanmar's elections: What happens next?

For most people, Myanmar's Sunday election is about change for the better. Indeed, the election is significant as citizens of Myanmar will have an opportunity to exercise the right to vote to bring about that change, a right that Burmese citizens are experiencing under a civilian government in over five decades. Within this 'time to change' slogan, there is a tendency to frame the elections in the easy and often used binary approach--the military vs the pro-democracy forces. Myanmar has moved on and this approach no longer helps in explaining the unfolding political dynamics of the country.

This thinking is harmful in the context of the changing landscape of the country that has seen major political, economic and social transformations in the past five years. It subsumes other issues that are equally important, if not more and undermines the achievements that the country has so far made in the path to democracy. It also conveniently brushes aside serious issues such as internal dynamics within the political parties, disenfranchisement of millions of people and democratic participation of marginalized communities.

True, the major political parties fighting this election are the military-backed ruling party - the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party - the National League for Democracy (NLD). Even so, there are several other smaller parties representing various interests - religion, ethnic groups, women, etc. with over 90 political parties in the fray for three levels of parliament representatives: 330 seats to Lower House, 168 seats Upper House and 644 seats for regional/state assemblies.

The current narrative is narrowly focused on who will win. But there is much at stake than just winning. What impacts will the election have on the socio-political fabrics of the country at a time when there are growing societal divides on religious and ethnic lines. It is about what the elections have to do the growing radicalisation of the society. How it will impact the future of ethnic peace where conflicts are still on? How it will strengthen the democratisation process that is still at a nascent stage. After all, it is about a country that was until recently isolated and reeled under a reclusive military rule for decades.

From all accounts, the NLD is likely to do well and may emerge as the largest party in the new parliament with the USPD coming second. In the absence of any opinion polls, most predictions are based on turns out for a particular leader or party during mass campaign rallies. Going by the crowd that Aung San Suu Kyi pulls in her elections rallies; her popularity is by far the greatest. But the NLD has its own problems. There is growing internal division that was triggered by the party's controversial party list that saw some potential candidates ignored and there is no single Muslim candidate. A few senior party members have questioned these decisions. Also, even if the NLD wins a majority, Suu Kyi herself is barred for the top position by the constitution. The question is who will be the alternative candidate for the job. This issue itself may further divide the party even if the party wins.

The USDP is no better when it comes to internal cohesion. The party remains divided as demonstrated in September when the then party's chair Shwe Mann was ousted. Other powerful ministers in the current government have left the party including Aung Min, the government's chief negotiator with the ethnic armed groups. While this may not adversely affect the party's fortune in the elections, the issue of internal party unity and struggle for leadership will continue to haunt the party with the current armed forces chief also eyeing for the top job.

There are worrying trends that the election is also throwing up. The National Development Party (NDP), a Buddhist nationalist party that was formed only in July this year, is an electoral force to reckoned with ranking fourth among political parties in terms of both funding and numbers of candidates fielded for the Sunday poll. Increasing radical Buddhist nationalism is defining the country since reforms were initiated in 2011. In fact, Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (or Ma Ba Tha) is an influential organisation that openly advocates Buddhist supremacy. Ma Ba Tha is close to the USDP and in the Buddhist-majority country the ruling-USDP party is willing to ride on the rising tide of Buddhist nationalism. As radical Buddhists groups sway undecided voters it may affect the NLD's chance of winning a majority in parliament.

The direct impact on the elections of the growing Buddhist nationalist sentiments in the recent years has been the disenfranchisement of a million Rohingya Muslims as voting rights have been stripped away for them. Democratic participation in as many as 400 villages in ethnic states including Kachin and Karen will not take place on Sunday as voting has been suspended in these areas for "security" reasons. Even so, several ethnic-based parties hope to make inroads in the elections. Accounting for a third of parliamentary seats the ethnic parties could be crucial to the results expected to be dominated by Suu Kyi's NLD and the military-backed USDP.

Finally, election campaigning in the past two months had witnessed no major violence and it is likely that Sunday voting will also pass by without serious irregularities or violence. However, the big question and a worry among many Burmese is what happen after Sunday poll. Despite President Thein Sein's assurances that the government and the army will respect the elections results, there are concerns. Burmese voters fear that trouble may come from the NLD or the USDP. If the NLD wins, trouble may come for the loser - the USDP and vice-a-versa. There are several issues and problems of Myanmar that will remain and move beyond the elections. And whatever be the elections results, it needs to be seen as another major step forward in the long journey of the country's transition to democracy.

(Dr. K. Yhome is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation)

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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