Authors: Jack Myint, Ye Min Thwin Kyaw and Irene Myo
On November 8, Myanmar held its second multi-party democratic elections since the end of its decades-long military dictatorship in 2011. The first election took place in 2015, where the NLD won by a landslide.
According to the Union Election Commission (UEC), over 70% of the 37 million registered voters, in a population of 56 million, participated in electing the government officials to serve for the next five years in the following chambers:
- Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House of Parliament): 161 seats
- Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House of Parliament): 315 seats
- State and Region Parliaments: 612 seats
Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, this was an impressive turnout, higher even than the historic 2015 elections.
Although official results have not yet been certified by the UEC, all major local news outlets are projecting a clear landslide victory for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This will allow the NLD-dominated parliament to choose the president and one of two vice-presidents, appoint and confirm cabinet ministers and deputy ministers, as well as pass any legislation it pleases. For American business, this development means a steady continuation of the NLD’s economic reform efforts, with perhaps a greater momentum. Expect many of the same players over the past five years to remain in power.
There are, however, limitations to the NLD’s ability to govern. Per Myanmar’s 2008 military junta-drafted constitution, 25% of all parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, effectively giving them veto power over any proposed amendment to the constitution. The military also controls the defense, home affairs, and border affairs ministries. All those military MPs and ministry heads are directly appointed by, answer to, and serve at the pleasure of the Commander-in-Chief.
The next few months are likely to include significant discussion between the NLD, military, various ethnic parties, some opposition parties, and civil society organizations as the NLD make plans to form the next government, which will be appointed after January 30. With one eye on the government formation process, the Council’s Myanmar team delved into i) the election results; ii) the electoral process; and iii) what to expect, looking ahead.
The Election Results
As of November 11, all projections indicate that the NLD secured more than 390 combined seats in both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, which is 60 seats more than necessary to form the next government (the minimum is 322 seats). These figures surpass the NLD’s 2015 landslide victory, despite the emerging variety and savvy of contenders in Myanmar’s growing political space, including: the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) led by former generals and U Thein Sein administration officials, former Speaker of the Lower House Thura U Shwe Mann’s Union Betterment Party (UBP), leading businesswoman and former NLD MP Dr. Thet Thet Khine’s People’s Pioneer Party (PPP), 88 Generation Leader U Ko Ko Gyi’s People’s Party, and several ethnic political parties, some of which have merged in recent months. To read the Council’s previous analysis on the state of play in the lead-up to Myanmar’s 2020 elections, please click here.
The NLD managed to successfully turn over seats in constituencies that were dominated by rival parties five years ago, while maintaining re-election by large margins in townships that its incumbent leaders (President, State Counsellor, Vice-President), regional chief ministers, and MPs ran in. Given NLD’s overwhelming popularity in all Bamar majority states and most ethnic states, opposition parties accounted for approximately 12% of all votes casted. On a national level, the main opposition USDP has so far won only over 20 seats in both houses of Parliament (compared to 41 seats in 2015), and the UBP, PPP, and People’s Party were unable to capture a single seat in any legislature.
In Shan and Rakhine States, the NLD faced perhaps its biggest challenge from the local Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD) Party and the Arakan National Party (ANP). The SNLD leads in Shan State, ahead of the USDP and the NLD in both houses of Parliament and the state and region Parliaments. The ANP performed similarly, but with a smaller margin of victory, in Rakhine State. They were able to pull this off despite the cancellation of seats in both states, due to security concerns caused by infighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic insurgencies. In Rakhine alone, 36 parliamentary seats (Union Level and State/Region) and in Shan State, four seats were canceled. Overall, however, most ethnic parties did not perform as well as expected and this has potential to make the path towards peace and national reconciliation in conflict-ridden regions more challenging.
The Electoral Process
Despite some initial hurdles regarding access, the electoral process was open to monitoring by several independent observer groups that reported on the election planning, transparency in campaigning, election day voting, and post-election activities.
The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), the largest independent election observer organization, reported a peaceful electoral process that saw no major interruptions throughout, with proper cautionary measures in place for over 80% of the 39,000 polling stations. To read PACE’s full report on the Myanmar election, click here. Similarly, the US-based Carter Center found that voters in Myanmar were able to freely exercise their right in the election, saying that it has not found major irregularities at polling stations. It did, however, note that Myanmar’s democratic transition continues to be undermined by the reserved seats for military appointees, ongoing armed conflict in several areas of the country, and by the exclusion of more than two million people from the electoral process because of said conflicts. To read the Carter Center’s full statement, click here.
The U.S. (statement here), UK (statement here), and EU (statement here) all acknowledged the credibility on the overall conduct of the Myanmar elections, dubbing it as “another important milestone in Myanmar’s democratic transition”. They did raise similar concerns over the military’s role in government, disenfranchisement of voters and MP candidates in ethnic states, particularly Rakhine, and the cancellation of elections in several constituencies due to armed conflict.
The main opposition USDP cast doubts on the vote counting process and intends to file lawsuits in several constituencies. They have also called for the election to be reconvened, citing unfairness in the campaign process. The UEC quickly dismissed both claims as being unfounded and lacking in evidence. The Military’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had initially been critical of the election, claiming just one week before election day that it should have been postponed due to public health concerns and that the UEC was not being impartial. This caused some added tension between the Government and the military, leading the President’s Office to publicly condemn the Commander-in-Chief for overstepping his bounds, which concerned Myanmar watchers on what steps the military could have taken in an already volatile system of governance. On election day, however, the Commander-in-Chief said that the military will happily accept the election results as they represent the will of the people.
What to Expect: Looking Ahead
In the coming weeks, the Upper House of Parliament, Lower House of Parliament, and the military MPs will each put forward a candidate for President. The candidate with the highest votes of the entire Union Parliament will gain the Presidency, the second highest will become Vice-President (1), and the third highest Vice-President (2).
On account of clause 59(f) of the 2008 Constitution, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still barred from becoming President, given her two sons’ foreign citizenship. It is expected that she will continue to remain State Counsellor, a position that is now widely accepted as “above the President”. This means that whomever the NLD puts forward to be their choice for President will act largely as a ceremonial figurehead and toe the party line. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will also most likely continue to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to retain a seat in the powerful National Defense and Security Council. One of the two Vice-Presidents that the NLD gets to select will likely be an ethnic politician. The current Vice-President (2), U Henry Van Thio, is a Chin national, and the Vice-President (2) before him, Dr. Sai Mauk Kham, was a Shan national.
In terms of immediate priorities, the NLD is faced with an array of challenges, including:
- The COVID-19 Pandemic: COVID-19 has killed at least 1,420 in Myanmar so far. The number of infections, which reached 61,975 on November 10, has been climbing by some 1,000 or more each day. The incoming Government will have to increase its efforts in containing the spread of the virus, while enforcing social distancing and safety measures in place. It should also continue to extend resources to IGOs and NGOs to invest in health centers and private hospitals providing treatment and implementing strong control measures to curb the effects of COVID-19 until a vaccine becomes within reach.
- Economic Recovery and Development: According to the World Bank, Myanmar’s GDP growth is predicted to drop from 6.8 percent in FY19 to 0.5 percent in FY20, with approximately 7 million jobs at risk (ILO estimate), all attributable in large to the pandemic and related containment measures. The incoming government will have to focus on reviving the economy through effective implementation of the Myanmar Economic Recovery and Reform Plan (MERRP) and the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP), while further liberalizing the ICT, financial services, energy, and infrastructure sectors to attract high quality foreign investments.
- National Peace Process: The bottom-line is there is no end in sight to nationwide peace in Myanmar; the entire process is complicated and multi-faceted, to say the least: ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) with their varying and contradicting demands, the military with its uncompromising negotiating tactics, and the civilian government stuck in between, most times playing the role of mediator. As of this writing, there is ongoing fighting between the military and the EAOs in Shan, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, and Mon States. The incoming government will need to work better and smarter with the military and the EAOs in trying to tackle this almost impossible challenge.
- Bureaucratic Efficiency: One of the biggest criticisms the NLD Government received over the past five years is the pace in which its political and economic reforms move at the implementing level. Some attribute this to the lack of experience of the NLD leadership, others on the competency of its ministers. Whatever the case may be, the undeniable truth is the lack of understanding by the civilian administration in effectively maneuvering Myanmar’s large and opaque bureaucracy, which is still heavily influenced by the thinking and modus operandi of its military regime past. Now that the NLD has had some experience in tackling this, the expectation is that the incoming government will be better equipped to work the system in getting things done.
The Council will continue to closely monitor Myanmar’s Government formation in the coming days. Members with any further questions on Myanmar’s 2020 General Elections should contact the Council's Myanmar Country Manager Jack Myint at firstname.lastname@example.org.