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Demand for democracy and economic reform will mark Myanmar polls

Supporters of the National League for Democracy party take part in a campaign rally with a cut-out portrait of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar on Oct. 25

Myanmar goes to the polls on Sunday in a critical election that will determine the country’s future. The two key issues before the electorate are: (1) the fragile balance between the civilian government and the still very powerful military; (2) giving impetus to the National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s drive to reform the economy and the constitution.

The election gives voters a chance to decide whether the NLD government, led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, should be given a renewed mandate to strengthen democratic institutions.

Although the NLD won the last elections 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, to govern. The military still exercises enormous political power in what is essentially a “coalition” government. Under the pro-military 2008 constitution, the military has 25% of the seats in the national and regional parliaments; the army chief appoints three ministers, of border, defence and interior; and has autonomy over 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 a ‘guided democracy’.

Although there are more than ninety parties contesting the elections, there are only two which are serious contenders: the NLD and the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). 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 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 roster of young candidates in contrast to the NLD, their reach remains geographically limited. All parties face the high hurdle of Myanmar's first-past-the-post electoral system,” he told the South Asian Monitor (SAM). 

Yadarna Khine, a 41-year-old female street vendor, whose business has been hit hard by the strict Covid restrictions imposed in Yangon said: “Of the many parties, I know only the NLD and USDP. I am going to vote NLD as I wish the next government to help solve all our problems.”

On the ground, campaigning is muted because of the pandemic. But urban areas like Mandalay and Yangon are awash with the red flags and posters of the NLD. Visible support for the USDP, the ‘green’ party as it is known, is much more subdued. 

Despite the multitude of parties contesting the elections, most voters clearly understand that the real choice is between strengthening democracy with economic reform and a return to the repression and corruption of the past. 

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“The differences in the policies of the contesting political parties could not be greater. The electorate may endorse the NLD's continuation of economic liberalization efforts towards a level playing field for international companies or it 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.

“Overall, all political parties have presented poorly drafted manifestoes. They are mere slogans,” commented William Maung, an independent Yangon business consultant and financial services expert. “They lack concrete details with specific plans and priorities,” he added. 

But for the general public it’s the ‘bread and butter’ issues which are key. “The NLD has my support because it has done a good job since it came to power in 2016,” Aung Thu, a 20-year old waiter at a Mandalay teashop told SAM. “The villages now have electricity and better roads, a complete contrast to 20 years ago. I hope they will continue to improve the country if they are re-elected.”

In interviews with more than thirty voters across the country, though almost all in urban areas, SAM found more than sixty percent support for the NLD. “I am going to vote for the NLD because I don’t like the USDP or any of the other parties,” Shwe Yee Saw Myint, a 31-year-old female communications consultant based in Yangon, told SAM. But she had serious reservations about whether the election is going to be free and fair.

“The current NLD-government has reduced corruption to some extent – more than past governments. People have access to better transportation infrastructure and electricity. 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 said. 

This is the key message most voters gave to SAM: “We support the NLD – and will continue to do so -- because they are still actively engaged in reforming and developing the country.” 

Thein Naing, a 59-year-old Mandalay-based corporate lawyer, said. “I fervently hope that the next government will introduce a new federal democratic constitution. This is the key issue the next Government must address,” he said emphatically.

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 noodles seller in the Mandalay market. 

Many voters hoped that specific improvements in the business environment will be brought about. “The next government must attract a lot of investment from developed countries in order to provide our citizens with employment and good salaries,” said Yan Naing Tun, a 33-year old gold trader in Nattalin Township in the Pegu region. 

“The NLD has reduced bribery and is better for business,” said Mi Chan, a 27-year old street seller in Mandalay. For Sein Lin a 30-year-old singer, making the Myanmar currency stronger is the main issue. 

But even those who are not voting NLD, but USDP or the pro-business party, the Peoples’ Prosperity Party (PPP) led by Dr Thet Thet Khine, or are still undecided, the economy figures high on their list of priorities. 

The key issue the next government must tackle is the development in the education and health-care sectors, said a female executive in Mandalay, who preferred to remain anonymous. 

If these voters’ represent the mind of the country’s millions of voters, the NLD is heading for a significant victory, though a sizable number of ethnic parties may also win seats. So, the next government is going to have its work cut out. And the military will continue to cast a long shadow over it, giving it very little room for manoeuvre.

“More important than the actual vote count in these elections will be the political outcome afterwards in terms of the triangle of civilian-military-ethnic relations,” warned Mr Hass. 

“Also the geopolitical implications of this election cannot be ignored, especially at a time when Myanmar and the ASEAN overall need to cherry-pick offerings from China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added.