Pandemic poll drives reform demands

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Myanmar goes to the polls on Sunday in a critical election that will determine the country’s future direction. At issue is the country’s fragile political balance — between the civilian government and the still very powerful military — and more importantly, give renewed impetus to the current government’s drive to reform the country and the constitution. This election gives the voters the chance to decide whether the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, led by the charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, will be given a renewed mandate to push forward on the country’s tentative reform path and strengthen its democratic institutions.

Although the pro-democracy party, the NLD, won the last election in 2015, the army continues to play a major role in determining the country’s development, making it difficult for “the Lady”, as she is widely known within the country, to govern. The military still exercises enormous political power in what is essentially a “coalition” administration: under the pro-military 2008 constitution, the military have 25% of the seats in the national and regional parliaments; the army chief appoints three ministers — border, defence and interior; and exercises enormous autonomy over the budget, defence and security matters.

It is the third election since 2010 when the former generals allowed a transition, involving multiparty democracy, in what the military preferred to call “guided democracy”. Millions of voters will cast their ballots in what is a crucial election that could also decide what happens to the country’s fragile transition to democracy. This could be a watershed moment in Myanmar’s recent political history and irreversibly cement the country’s desire for democracy and a civilian government.

Although there are more than 90 parties contesting the elections, there are only two which are serious contenders: the NLD and the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP). And the fact that Myanmar’s electoral system is “first-past-the-post” means that the smaller parties, especially the newer ones, are at a severe disadvantage.

“Alternatives to the incumbent NLD are limited: the USDP, the main nationwide contender, has not attempted to shake off its image as a proxy for the military, which few want to have back in power,” said Nyanatha Maw Lin, a Yangon-based independent political and economic consultant.

“While there is a resurgence and renewed interest in various ethnic parties, some of which have pulled together a register of young — and many women — candidates compared to the NLD, their reach remains geographically limited. And all parties face the high hurdle of Myanmar’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which unequally reduces opportunities, the more parties there are on the ballot,” he told the Bangkok Post.

“It’s confusing all these parties — more than last time [2015],” said Yadarna Khine, a 41-year-old, female street seller, whose business has been hit hard by the strict Covid restrictions imposed in Yangon to stop the spread of the pandemic. “I just know the NLD and USDP parties, but I am going to vote NLD as I wish the next government to work to help and solve all our troubles and problems,” she said.

On the ground, campaigning is also muted, because of government restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the pandemic. But urban areas like Mandalay and Yangon are awash with the Red flags and posters of the NLD, whereas visible support for the USDP, the “green” party as it is known in Myanmar, is much more subdued. Despite the multitude of parties contesting the elections, most voters clearly understand the real choices are between strengthening democracy and economic reform and a return to the repression and corruption of the past.

Voters are crystal clear what the choices are in this election, according to many analysts, academics and diplomats. “The differences in the policies of the contesting political parties could not be greater: the electorate may endorse the NLD’s continuation of economic liberalisation efforts towards a level playing field for international companies or voters may choose a pathway to a conservative opening of Myanmar’s economy as under the administration of [former] President Thein Sein [of the USDP], said Felix Hass a public and private sector consultant and long-time Yangon resident.

While there are as multitude of competing political platforms, policies and slogans, these are all very superficial, according to analysts: “Overall, all political parties have presented poorly drafted manifestos to the electorate, which amount to nothing more than slogans and statements of intent,” said William Maung, an independent Yangon business consultant and financial services expert. “They lack concrete details, with specific plans and priorities.”

But for the general public this nuanced approach to the parties’ platforms has little resonance — it is “bread and butter” issues which are swaying the voters. “The NLD has my support because it has done a gone job since it came to power [in 2016],” said Aung Thu — a 20-year old waiter at a Mandalay teashop. “The villages now have electricity and better roads — a complete contrast to 20 years ago. I hope that they will continue to improve the country if they are re-elected.”

In interviews with more than 30 voters across the country, though almost all in urban areas, the Bangkok Post found more the 60% support for the NLD — enthusiastically or more subdued. “I am going to vote for the NLD because I don’t like the USDP or any of the other parties,” said Shwe Yee Saw Myint, a 31-year-old female communications consultant based in Yangon. While she felt there was no real alternative but other than to vote for the NLD, she had serious reservations about whether the election is really going to “free or fair”.

“The current NLD government has reduced corruption to some extent — more than past governments. People have access to better transportation infrastructure and electricity as a result. But the next NLD-government — if it wins the election — will have to intensify its reform agenda,” she added. This must include vastly improving the education system, boosting economic development, reducing poverty — especially in the rural areas — and pushing ahead with national reconciliation and the peace process, she insisted.

This is the key message most voters stressed. “We support the NLD — and will continue to do so — because they are still actively engaged in reforming and developing the country,” said Thein Naing, a 59-year-old Mandalay-based corporate lawyer. “I fervently hope that the next government can introduce a new federal democratic constitution. This is the key priority the next government must address — reforming the constitution according the peoples’ overwhelming desire for a federal democratic country.”

Many of the other voters interviewed voiced similar sentiments: “I support the NLD because they are the only party that can bring about real democracy and a better economy,” said Thu, a 33-year old male tour guide from Mandalay. Others echoed these feelings: the NLD is the only party that can make the country truly free,” said Ar Yi, a 30-year-old male noodle seller in Mandalay market.

If these voters represent the country’s millions of voters about to cast their ballots this weekend — which maybe a flawed election — the NLD is heading for a significant victory, though there is expected to be a sizeable vote for the various ethnic political parties, who also want to see constitutional change and the introduction of a federal democratic state. So the next government is going to have its work cut out for it. And the military continues to cast a long shadow over the government’s room to manoeuvre.

“More important than the actual vote count these elections will be the political outcome afterwards in terms of the triangle of civilian-military-ethnic relations,” warned Mr Hass. “The geopolitical implications of this election cannot be ignored, especially at a time when Myanmar and Asean overall need to cherry-pick offerings from the Belt and Road Initiative and the US vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”