- Geoff Donald
2020 Myanmar Election
With less than four weeks to go the Myanmar is gearing up for a general election. With the ongoing threat of COVID-19, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will be looking to maintain their supermajority and continue to push forward with their promised reforms while the opposition parties are looking to capitalize on ethnic and religious divisions along with growing discomfort amongst the Myanmar people to gain seats and influence in the next Parliament.
As well as the political parties, the Myanmar military will look to maintain the current political system which provides the military with enormous influence and power.
What is Happening
On November 8, 2020, despite growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, the people of Myanmar will go to the polls to elect a new Government.
The current head of state and the de jure head of government for Myanmar is incumbent president is Win Myint. The real political authority however lies in the hands is Aung San Suu Kyi the de facto head of government, State Counsellor of Myanmar, and leader of the ruling National League for Democracy. Due to a clause in the Myanmar constitution prohibiting anyone who is married to a foreign citizen or whose children are foreigners cannot be president, Aung San Suu Kyi is ineligible for the position of President.
In addition to the State Counsellor, the current Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces and member of the National Defence and Security Council, Min Aung Hlaing wields considerable power over the direction of Myanmar in Myanmar current political system.
With more than 7,000 candidates from 90+ registered political parties running for 1,157 seats across in seven regional and seven state parliaments and both chambers of the national level Assembly of the Union (or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) the upcoming election will represent a test for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD which in 2015 won a super majority in both Chambers by capturing 390 out of 498 seats. In addition to the 498 seats that are up for election again in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, an additional 166 seats (or 1 in 4 seats) are set aside for military appointees.
While there are over 90 registered parties for the November 8 election, most of these parties are linked to a specific region or ethnic group are not capable of forming a national government. Only two major parties, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Union Solidarity and Development Party have a history (as limited as that is) of competing on a nation-wide scale. The USPD is the current opposition party, the former governing party of Myanmar and is seen as a proxy for the Myanmar military. While two other parties, the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Union Betterment Party (UBP), have signalled that they intend to compete nationally neither is a proven force within Myanmar and both parties face challenges. The UDP leader was recently arrested for a previous prison escape while the UBP Chairman U Shwe Mann has chosen not to run in this election to allow others to run.
While the various ethnic parties are unlikely to form office at a national level, they are likely to increase their power and influence at the state and region level where they can better focus their campaign resources. As well, the ethnic parties will also play a key role in supporting one of the larger in case of a minority government. Over the past 18 months, ethnic parties have begun to merge in order to avoid splitting the vote amongst their supports in an effort to shape the outcome of the election.
After the upcoming election, the President and the two Vice Presidents of Myanmar are elected by the Presidential Electoral College. Making up the Presidential Electoral College are three committees of Members of Parliament. There is one committee from each of chamber of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and one committee from the military-appointed members. Each committee recommends one candidate, and the Assembly then holds a vote on those candidates. The highest vote-getter becomes President, while the remaining two candidates become the Vice Presidents.
Overview of Myanmar
With horseshoe mountain ranges encircling its central lowlands, Myanmar geography has generally provided protection from its neighbouring countries such as India, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, and China.
That very same geography has also shaped how Myanmar society is today. The largest ethnic group, the Bamar who make up 68% of the Myanmar population, mainly populate the lowlands areas while minorities and indigenous groups are restricted to the mountains and highlands regions. Historically, as lowlands regions are more productive agriculturally and economically this has resulted in greater benefits flowing to the Bamar as compared to other groups. In country such as Myanmar, which contains 135 official major ethnic groups and seven ethnic minority states, the issue of ethnic grievances will need to be addressed or Myanmar will continue to face ethnic and minority unrest.
Another driving factor in public life Myanmar is religion. Based on the most recent census, Buddhists represent 87.9% of the country, Christians make up 6.2%, Muslims constitute 4.3%, animists are counted at 0.8% and Hindus are listed at 0.5 %. The census however has been criticized for excluding some minority groups such as the Rohingyas and others from the Rakhine state.
With an average current age of 28.2 years old, the population of Myanmar is expected to grow from 54 million to more than 62 million people by 2054. Like many other countries, Myanmar’s faces falling fertility rates due to an increase in urbanization, access to contraception, education for women and the number of unmarried women.
Myanmar is a young growing country divided by geography, religion, and ethnicity. While there is a large economic opportunity due to age profile and size of population, the current divisions that plague Myanmar bring increased political risks.
Importance of Myanmar
Like many countries Myanmar derives importance from its location. The country acts as a land bridge between Indian and Southeast Asia, as a buffer from China and India, and as a potential path for China to access the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
It is in this last role that Myanmar takes on an increased importance for geopolitical purposes. From the city of Yangon to the closest Chinese border crossing is 1,000KM as compared to the more than 4,700KM through the Andaman Sea, Strait of Malacca, and South China Seas. The Strait of Malacca which narrows to 2.8KM wide is a natural strategic choke point through which 80% of Chinese oil pass through. This “Malacca dilemma” is forcing China to look for additional routes to secure its energy needs and Myanmar represents one potential solution.
A particular concern for India, the US and others is that in addition to diversifying and shortening supply lines for economic and national security reasons, an increased Chinese presence in Myanmar could allow China the ability to project military power directly into the Indian Ocean.
As Myanmar’s most important foreign partner, China is a major source of foreign investment and has historically provided Myanmar with diplomatic coverage at the United Nations and other key international institutions. While Myanmar has attempted to build other strategic relationship with other countries, these attempts were undermined in 2017 by the Myanmar military’s action against the Rohingyas. With no other options in the shorth term and some misgivings, Myanmar has increased its reliance on China.
Part of the reason for misgivings on the part of Myanmar for its reliance on China stems from the suspicion that many of the armed ethnic militias inside Myanmar are receiving backing including funds, training and weapons from China despite official denials from Chinese President Xi Jinping. This backing of armed militias is widely viewed as a way for China to retain influence over the internal politics of their neighbour.
While China and Myanmar appear to have a close relationship at the government level, the Myanmar public is more wary of its large neighbour to the North with Myanmar people leading numerous protests against Chinese backed projects such as the Myitsone dam project and other development in the Kachin and Rakhine states. The Myanmar government will have to be careful not to get too far ahead of the Myanmar people in its embrace of China or risk a nationalistic backlash.
In addition to its location, Myanmar is rich in natural resources including forestry hydropower, oil and gas, coal, base metals, gems and “rare earth” minerals all of which its neighbours to East, West and North are interested in acquiring.
With the existence of multiple armed militias and non-state actors, existing sectarian tensions and an availability of weapons, the number of risk factors for electoral violence is high for this election. Other factors such as increase in misinformation through social media and a polarized electorate could resulted in a higher possibility of violence amongst various groups opposed to whichever side forms government.
The NLD would be particularly affected if there is an outbreak of significant violence. because under Myanmar law, the Myanmar military and security services would be responsible for contain any violence under the declaration of a national emergency. In a national emergency, the National Defence and Security Council, a military dominated council, is responsible exercising state sovereignty. This raises the possibility that even if the NLD wins the upcoming election, they would be unable to continue to govern due to an outbreak of violence.
Regardless of who wins the upcoming election, the next Myanmar government will face significant constraints on their ability to govern. These constraints include:
· Numerous armed militias and separatist groups who are actively fighting the Myanmar military.
· The involvement and importance of the Myanmar military in any administration that may form government after the election.
· A Constitution that provides significant restraints on any government by through reserving 1 in 4 seats in both houses of the Assembly for the military, 1 in 3 committees for nominating presidents, and a de facto veto over changing the Constitution that is held by the Myanmar military.
· Limited government capacity to drive government new programs and enact changes in existing ones.
· Increasing government annual deficit and debt due to COVID-19 spending and reduction in government revenues.
· Foreign Direct Investment has collapsed since 2017 with Western companies being especially resistant to investing in Myanmar due to the Rohingya crisis.
· The next government will be formed with limited support amongst minority groups thus depriving them of some legitimacy of being a truly national government for all of Myanmar.
· Myanmar neighbours have realized the importance that it can have on their security and prosperity. As China and India become more active in Myanmar, the country will attempt to remain as un-aligned as possible for as long as it can while appealing for support from all sides.
· While originally successful at avoiding COVID-19 in the first half of 2020, Myanmar has seen the number of cases surge over the past two months and has imposed restriction on movements, travel and closed business in order to halt further spread of the virus
According to the Myanmar constitution, the current parliament ends on Jan 31, 2021. New parliamentarians must be in place on Feb 1, 2021 to select and elect President and Vice Presidents. This means that despite the outbreak of COVID-19 and the ongoing fighting in different parts of Myanmar, the election on November 8 is unlikely to be cancelled.
At a time when normal campaigning has been impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions, Aung San Suu Kyi has been extremely visible on television and social media in her role as State Counsellor while other parties have had a difficult time cutting through the noise of COVID-19 to push their message.
What limited public polling that has taken place in Myanmar shows that Aung San Suu Kyi has continued to maintain high levels of trust among the Burmese people while the other leaders and parties remain far behind. However, the polling was not able to be conducted in areas in at least three States and therefore may not provide a wholly accurate view.
While there are many potential outcomes for the November 8 election, we have identified five potential scenarios that we wanted to highlight. The scenarios are:
Scenario #1: NLD Win Big - The NLD maintain their supermajority in both houses of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. Under this scenario, the NLD will continue to with their agenda including on-going attempts to change the Constitution to lower the influence of the military, to managing ethnic conflict, liberalize key sectors of the economy and to continue to strengthen government institutions.
Scenario #2: The NLD Win - The NLD form a majority government but do not obtain a supermajority in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. Under this scenario, the NLD will focus on its economic and social objectives while minimizing its attempts of constitutional reform. The NLD may also be more open to improving relationships with ethnic groups and taking more steps to improve national reconciliation.
Scenario #3: The NLD Don’t Lose - the NLD fails to win a majority of seats but remains the largest party in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. Under this scenario, the NLD will be forced to find coalition partners with whom they can govern. With the main opposition party, the USDP likely being unwilling to be that partner, the NLD will have to work with various other parties including ethnic and religious based parties to form government. Myanmar has no recent experience with minority governments and any government formed under this scenario is likely to be fragile and short-lived. Governments in a minority situation are rarely focused on medium- and long-term issues instead they are focused on short term issues and on maintain the support of their governing partners. As well, if the NLD loses their majority, Aung San Suu Kyi despite her popularity and the lack of an obvious successor would face increasing internal pressure from within the NLD to either step down or to share power within the NLD itself.
Scenario #4: The NLD Lose – The USDP wins enough seats to be the largest party in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw but not enough to form a majority. Under this scenario, the USDP would partner with the non-elected military members to either form a majority government or entice a few smaller parties to join the coalition with the USDP and the military to form government. The USDP is currently running on a platform of better security, a better peace process and economic development.
Scenario #5: Almost Everyone Loses – The election results are disputed, and these
results are not recognized by the other parties. Under this scenario, the opposition parties reject the validity of the election and its outcome with protests and electoral violence breaking out in dissatisfied areas. This violence would lead to a declaration of a national emergency and as noted above, the Myanmar military and security services would be responsible for contain any violence. In the scenario, the National Defence and Security Council would assume responsibility for state power and for governing Myanmar for an undetermined amount of time.
In our view the most likely outcome for the November 8th election is Scenario #2. Barring any major changes or the declaration of a national emergency, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will be re-elected though without the same level of support that the Party received in 2015 election, as frustration with her government grows in ethnic minority areas.
Despite disappointment in the NLD ability to bring fundamental changes to Myanmar, the personal popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi and the lack of a unified opposition mean that the NLD have a clearer path to victory than any other political party in Myanmar.