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Myanmar - The folk heroine reveals her former ideals

On November 8th, around 37 million citizens in Myanmar are called to vote in the parliamentary elections - only for the second time after the end of military rule in 2011. More than a million voters are excluded, freedom of expression is limited, Aung San Suu Kyi uses the Covid -19 crisis. The folk heroine reveals her former ideals.

Myanmar's folk hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, wants to be re-elected. Internationally, the head of government is isolated because of the expulsion of around 700,000 Muslim Rohingya by the military from the Buddhist country. However, it continues to enjoy great popularity in the country itself. Your re-election is considered fairly certain. But the election organized by their government is not free and fair.

Here are eight backgrounds to choose from in Myanmar:

Aung San Suu Kyi failed to keep key promises

The folk heroine had three important goals when she came to power in 2016: First, a constitutional reform that further limits the power of the military. Second, she planned to make peace with the ethnic minority rebel groups. Thirdly, it wanted to significantly improve the economic situation of the citizens.

Aung San Suu Kyi was unable to actually fulfill any of the promises. The 2008 constitution remained in force. 25 percent of the seats in parliament are still reserved for the military. The army also appoints the ministers for defense, border protection and homeland security. The peace process is also stagnating. In the states of Rakhine and Shan, fighting between the army and rebel groups has even intensified.

The economic successes are modest. The euphoria after the end of Western sanctions, when Myanmar was celebrated as the new boom state, is long gone. The weaknesses of the Myanmar economy such as bureaucracy and a weak infrastructure come to the fore. Only in the past two years has the government implemented reforms to attract new investors into the country. Most of them come from China and the rest of Asia. Western companies stay away. They fear that trade facilitations will be terminated or sanctions will be imposed because of the expulsion of the Rohingya.

However: Aung San Suu Kyi's self-imposed goals were very difficult to achieve. For a constitutional amendment, it would have had to overcome the army's blocking minority in parliament. Even the complicated peace process with numerous groups and lines of conflict involved can only be mastered in cooperation with the army. And she is a difficult partner.

The competition for Aung San Suu Kyi is growing

One of the most important campaign arguments of Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD (National League for Democracy) is still: We stand for more democracy and against the influence of the army. But now there are doubts whether the outdated NLD, dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi, is actually still a driving force for democratization and reforms.

This is another reason why there is now competition in the anti-military camp: The entrepreneur Thet Thet Khine, once an NLD member, is calling for economic changes with her People’s Pioneer Party (PPP). The human rights activist and former political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi and his People’s Party (PP) promise to finally get serious about constitutional reform and democratic reforms.

The most powerful opponent of the NLD remains the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party). It is close to the army, which ruled the country for decades until it opened in 2010. During the election campaign, their candidates drew attention to Muslims with racist slogans and accused Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, among other things, of not protecting Buddhism.

The role of the ethnic parties is likely to become much more important. Myanmar is a multiethnic state: of the around 50 million inhabitants, around 70 percent are ethnic Burmese. The other 30 percent are distributed among more than 100 other ethnic groups. The Shan, Karen, Mon and Chin are among the largest minorities. At the moment, however, ethnic parties hardly play a role in parliament. That could change after the election.

The election commission is partisan

The members of the influential electoral commission are selected by the president in Myanmar. Both incumbent U Win Myint and his predecessor Htin Kyaw are confidants of Aung San Suu Kyi. The electoral commission is therefore not considered independent. Criticism is among other things the decision of the electoral commission to partially or completely cancel the election in more than 56 districts. According to the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, around 1.5 million people are unable to cast their votes as a result. The commission did not give a date for making up for the election.

The state of Rakhine is particularly affected, but also Kachin, Karen, Mon and Shan. The election commission cites the security situation as a reason. Human Rights Watch points out, however, that in some parts of Myanmar the security situation is significantly worse - and that people still vote there.

The human rights activists accuse the Commission of the fact that the annulments are intended to discriminate against ethnic parties. The United Nations also criticized the process: "The Commission has not justified its decision publicly," said a spokeswoman for the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The NLD and the government are also criticized for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Ethnic parties report that their content is censored by the electoral commission before it is broadcast on television and radio. With reference to the security situation, the government has also throttled Internet access in the states of Rakhine and Chin. There smartphone users can only access the network at 2G speed - which makes it almost impossible to obtain comprehensive information on the Internet.

Covid-19 massively affects the choice

In Myanmar, more than 50,000 people have been proven to be infected with Covid-19, and more than a thousand have died from the disease. Up until September it looked as if the pandemic was under control, but the number of cases has been increasing massively for a few weeks, in some cases they were 2,000 new infections per day - although the number of unreported cases is likely to be significantly higher. In no other country in the Mekong region has the disease spread so widely.

The authorities reacted with severe restrictions: shops had to close, meetings and travel were banned. For the parties, a classic election campaign was practically impossible in many places. Rangoon, the economic center of the country with more than five million inhabitants, is one of the regions affected. Many private publishers have had to stop printing their publications due to limitations and problems in the supply chain.

Instead, the election campaign took place mainly digitally. The parties held regular live Facebook conversations to present their programs and candidates. The importance of other media also grew, especially the state - they were less affected by the restrictions.

As in many other countries, the executive branch should benefit from the disaster situation. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Aung San Suu Kyi has been seen more frequently on billboards and in state newspapers, for example as part of government hygiene awareness campaigns. It also has a very large reach on Facebook. That helps her now in the digital election campaign. Your conversations with ministers and top officials are streamed live on your account.

The NLD is reluctant to postpone the election

In view of the difficult circumstances, 24 political parties called for elections to be postponed as early as September. The ruling party NLD and the electoral commission massively influenced by it reject this. They refer to the security concepts in the polling stations. This includes, among other things, a mask requirement, disinfectant dispensers and strict distance rules. People over 60 as a risk group are also allowed to cast their votes in polling offices before the actual election date - Aung San Suu Kyi has already voted for this reason.

Above all, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party argue politically against postponing the election: According to the constitution, it is only possible to postpone it by a few weeks, it says. A longer waiting period would lead to a constitutional crisis - which the army could then use to seize power. Legally and politically, however, this argument is controversial.

The NLD may have to form a coalition

Aung San Suu Kyi continues to have the image of the mother of the nation among the population at large - this applies above all to the heartland, where the majority of ethnic Burmese live. The NLD will certainly do very well again here.

However, many observers expect Aung San Suu Kyi to do worse than in 2015. At that time, her party won 86 percent of the seats that are not reserved for the military. It will be much more difficult this year: Firstly, she was unable to keep many of her promises and competition in the democratic camp has grown. Second, with a new strategy, the ethnic parties could get significantly more seats in parliament this time around.

In the last election, many ethnic parties ran separately and competed with one another. In Myanmar's majority electoral system, in which all votes of losing candidates in a constituency are lost, this was a disadvantage for them. In this election, however, the ethnic parties formed alliances. In many constituencies, they have significantly higher chances.

Presumably the NLD will emerge as the strongest party this time as well. But it is quite possible that she will have to form a coalition with the ethnic parties. Even a coalition between ethnic parties, the military bloc and the army-affiliated USDP cannot be entirely ruled out.

In general, the ethnic parties could slip into the role of the “kingmaker”. As a price for their support, they could ask, for example, to provide the heads of government in some states. In Myanmar, they are not elected by regional parliaments, but determined by the president. In the long term, the growing influence of ethnic parties could lead to more decentralized structures.

The turnout could fall

In 2015 there was great euphoria and enthusiasm for democracy. That has changed. Even in the most recent by-elections, participation was significantly lower, especially among young people. According to a survey by the local NGO Pace, interest in politics is at a low point.

There is now a strong "no-vote" movement. She is supported by activists and many students. Their protest is directed against, among other things, the discrimination against minorities and the continued strong role of the army, which has not changed under Aung San Suu Kyi. This is an unfamiliar situation for the folk heroine. In 2010, her NLD party boycotted the election because of the strong influence of the military, which Aung San Suu Kyi had placed under house arrest at the time. Ten years later, calls for boycotts are directed against an election organized by Suu Kyi's NLD government.

Covid-19 could also lead to a low turnout. Due to the poor medical care in the country, there is great fear of the virus. The only reason is not just concern about infection at the polling station. Many are also concerned about being put into state quarantine on suspicion - which poses significant health and economic risks.

Rohingya are not allowed to vote

Internationally, Aung San Suu Kyi has been heavily criticized for driving out the Rohingya. The United Nations assumes that around 700,000 members of the Muslim minority have been displaced in the past few years. Because of this, the German government canceled a large part of its development cooperation with Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has become a pariah on the global stage.

In Myanmar itself, the situation is different. When Aung San Suu Kyi defended her country at the International Court of Justice in The Hague last year, she was cheered by many Burmese in the country. They celebrate the politician for not bowing to international pressure.

The estimated 600,000 Rohingya still remaining in Myanmar are not allowed to take part in the election. Myanmar regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Most Rohingya do not have Myanmar citizenship - and therefore do not have the right to vote.

Frederic Spohr heads the activities of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Myanmar and Thailand. Hnin Wint Naing is Executive Program Manager in the Foundation's Yangon office.

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