GP Insights

GP Insights # 437, 8 November 2020

Myanmar: General elections marred by a civil-military tussle
Lokendra Sharma

What happened?
On 2 November, the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services issued a statement critical of the Union Election Commission's (UEC) handling of the general elections. Calling the UEC incompetent, the statement also laid the responsibility of its failure with the National League for Democracy (NLD) led government.  On 3 November, the military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing cast doubts about the elections being free and fair. On the same day, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi responded in a Facebook post, indirectly referring to the military, that they are "intentionally inciting the public's righteous anger" and asked people not to get "trapped" by it.

On 4 November, the President's office also responded to the military's statement and the military chief's comments. The government spokesperson said that the military's statement was unhelpful and based on groundless allegations. He reminded that the UEC was a constitutional body and was not accountable to the government. He also criticized the military for not complying with the "essence of the Constitution and the law". 

On 5 November, the military rejected the President office's statement. It said that the President could constitutionally appoint (and impeach) the members of the UEC. It warned that if president U Win Myint failed to uphold constitutional values, he could be impeached. This marked escalation of the military-NLD dispute. General elections are scheduled to happen on 8 November against this backdrop. 
What is the background?
First, the democratic transition in Myanmar. This is the third election since 2010. The NLD boycotted the 2010 election that was characterized as unfair; the election resulted in the victory of Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a party believed to be the military's proxy. The 2015 elections were a significant milestone and brought NLD to power. The 2020 election is the first ever to be conducted by a democratically elected government. 

Second, voting amidst the pandemic. Reported COVID-19 cases have witnessed a spike in the last two months, and this has made election campaigning very challenging, especially in the hotspots where the UEC banned physical campaigning. As internet penetration remains low in the hinterland, reaching out to voters has been difficult for political parties. Among the steps UEC is taking to address health concerns, one was to have early phase voting for those above 60 years. 

Third, issues of irregularities and criticism- both domestic and international. The opposition parties have criticized the irregularities in the early voting phase as well as the government's turning down of their demand to postpone elections.  On 16 and 27 October, the UEC announced suspending elections in many constituencies, primarily in the ethnic minority areas, leading to the disenfranchisement of about 1.5 million people. On 28 October, the Human Rights Watch questioned the transparency of the process adopted by UEC in choosing these excluded areas. However, to be fair to the NLD, democracy is still taking root and institutions are still taking shape in Myanmar, and it will take years, if not decades before the election process matures. 

Fourth, the deteriorating civil-military relationship. The ongoing military-NLD tussle amid the general elections is the culmination of a deteriorating relationship that has soured since 2015 landslide victory of NLD. The issues of contention have been handling the economy, progress of peace process, COVID-19 management, and the course and pace of democratization. This election has only sharpened the fault-lines. 

What does it mean?
Even as Suu Kyi remains very popular in Myanmar and would cement her position after her party's expected win in the general elections, the path ahead would not be an easy one. The military still is in control of the key ministries, including home, border and defence, and also appoints one-fourth members in both houses of parliament. 

Decades of military rule also means that its influence in Myanmar runs deep at the State and Society levels. In such a scenario, the democracy project of NLD cannot succeed without the active cooperation of the military, irrespective of the outcome of this election. The possibility of military seizing back power cannot be discounted at this stage either.

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