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Suu Kyi will sweep Myanmar polls but voter apathy needs to be countered

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Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is in the final stages of preparing for the parliamentary polls scheduled for November 8. Party Supremo and state Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, appears to be destined to return to power, albeit with a reduced majority.

The polls appear to be a ‘Covid election’. The pandemic has certainly served Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD very well as it has reinforced the party’s narrative that she is “the” saviour of the country, and no one can protect Myanmar and its people as she can.

“Covid has changed the landscape of the election,” said Nyantha Maw Lin, an independent consultant based in Yangon. “Suu Kyi’s use of Facebook is a massive winner. It will seal the deal as there’s much less room for anything to happen on the campaign trail, with potential social distancing requirements and other constraints because of Covid,” Maw Lin said. 

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“Mother Suu” – as she is affectionately known throughout the country – has used this opportunity to assert her leadership and strengthen her image as ‘the mother of the nation’. From the very early stages of the emergence of coronavirus in Myanmar in March, Aung San Suu Kyi has shown strong leadership, reinforced later by the astute use of social media. 

Her Facebook postings, her lectures and discussions have demonstrated the government’s and the State Counsellor’s command over the situation. It has left the other political parties flat footed and bewildered; and it has side-lined the military, which are an integral part of the power structure. 

Also Read: NLD struggles to find candidates in Rakhine for Myanmar’s upcoming election

“Her arrival on social media shows good leadership, good public leadership- which perhaps should have been done years ago,” Nyantha Maw Lin told South Asian Monitor over Zoom. “It’s been remarkably effective, and it is what people are going to respond to in November.”

“The government’s public response to Covid has changed her relationship and engagement with the public. From her social media presence, she gets direct feedback from viewers. She seems genuinely rejuvenated,” said Nyantha Maw Lin.

Future of Democracy

However, this election should prove to be a watershed for the future of the country’s fledgling democracy. They will be the first real democratic vote in the country since the military leaders stepped down a decade ago and allowed a fragile transition to democracy.

More importantly, the polls will be a litmus test of how far the country has traversed the path to genuine modernity and political maturity. The NLD’s performance will be closely scrutinized. It’s candidates and the electoral strategy will be critical in laying the foundation of good government for the next five years.

“The population is very quickly learning how to analyse and debate – That was missing in 2015,” said Alex Aung Khant, an urban planner and youth leader and an NLD member.

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“The notion that the NLD is going to win just like 2015 fails to recognise that 2020 is not 2015. It’s in fact very different from 2015,” he insisted. “Election talk actually started way back in 2019, and even before that in some circles. It’s very exciting, it’s very promising, and shows that the people are ready for a deeper understanding of politics. There are far more analysis and more discussions around candidates, policies, promises and actual performance. In 2015 people didn’t need so much time for discussion because we were all going to vote for the NLD against the military. Now we have a greater array of parties –and we’ve had the experience of the past five-years,” Khant told SAM in an interview.

The party is already in the process of choosing candidates, and closely scrutinizing the track record of the current MPs, to ensure that it puts the best foot forward. 

Stress on New Blood 

The stress is on introducing new blood into the political arena, Hanthar Myint, a senior member of the party’s Central Executive Committee, which has the final say over the list of candidates, told South Asian Monitor earlier this year. 

“We need a higher calibre of MPs,” said another senior member of the NLD, who declined to be named. What party officials have said publicly is that preference will be given to candidates who are ethnic minorities, women and youth.

The list of NLD candidates contesting over a thousand seats (for the two houses in the national parliament, and the fourteen regional and state parliaments) is expected to be announced by the end of this month.

Only about 60% of current MPs are likely to seek re-election, according to NLD insiders. Not all of those are guaranteed selection. In some cases, especially in the state and regional parliaments, there could be as many as a 75% turnover. 

Developmental Issues 

But it is the election promises that will be most critical. The manifesto, due to be announced next month before campaigning gets under way, will focus on post-Covid economic recovery, livelihoods and infrastructure, roads and energy reliability, according to sources close to the State Counsellor. 

The peace process and constitutional change will be pushed into the background. “Suu Kyi’s message and emphasis will be on recovery, pushing certain issues like health (possibly promoting universal health care) and education,” said the source.

Taking Victory For Granted 

Last week the NLD spokesman, Monywa Aung Shin, blithely told journalists: “We expected a landslide victory as in 2015.” While it may seem certain that the NLD is on course for another election victory this November, nothing can be taken for granted. Overconfidence may discourage electors from casting their vote because they don’t think it necessary to vote, the NLD will win anyway. 

Also Read: Rohingya-based party urges Myanmar to allow Muslim minority to vote and run for office

The biggest danger facing the NLD this time around, according to senior members of the party is voter apathy.

“We must get our supporters out and into the polling stations,” a current NLD MP, Bo Bo Oo said.

“A low voter turnout could be to the NLD’s disadvantage. Because these elections are only for 75% of the parliamentary seats – 25% of the seats are reserved for the military – the NLD needs to win nearly 70% of the seats up for election to have an absolute majority and to be able to form a government in its own right.”