GP Insights # 439, 15 November 2020
On 14 November, the Union Election Commission (UEC) of Myanmar announced the final results of the general elections which were held on 8 November. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi has won 396 seats (out of the 476 parliamentary seats) in a landslide victory.
On 12 November, the NLD reached out to Myanmar's ethnic parties by sending them an open letter. NLD extended them an invitation to join hands to form a "democratic federal union." "The ethnic parties' objectives are the same as the NLD's and the NLD would prioritize the ethnic's desires in the future," the letter read.
Earlier, on November 10, even as the preliminary election leads were trickling in, the Chairman of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said that they would mount a legal challenge against NLD's victory. Later, on 11 November, it called for holding "free, unbiased and disciplined" elections "in cooperation with the military." The USDP has won only 33 seats, 8 seats less than its 2015 tally.
What is the background?
First, the democratic transition. The successful conduct of the 2020 general elections represents a significant milestone in Myanmar's history. The 2010 election, which was held by the military, was boycotted by the NLD. The 2015 elections were conducted by the USDP, which won the previous election in 2010; the 2015 elections brought NLD into power. Notwithstanding the questions of fairness and credibility of UEC, international and domestic observers have said that the elections happened without major irregularities.
Second, the continuing popularity of NLD in Myanmar. In terms of seats and vote share, NLD has continued the 2015 momentum; with a second-in-a-row landslide victory, NLD has solidified its position in the domestic power landscape. State-counsellor Suu Kyi has also boosted her popularity and acceptance.
Third, the civil-military tussle. During the last week, the military made several statements/comments casting doubts about UECs competency; it also raised questions about elections being free and fair. However, on the day of elections, the commander-in-chief promised to respect people's mandate. Despite the worsening NLD-military relationship, the military has so far refrained from directly interfering in the election process. It has allowed the election process without placing hindrances.
Fourth, the relationship between NLD and ethnic groups. NLDs relationship with different minority ethnic groups has been bad in the last five years. Factors like lack of sincere approach by NLD government, insufficient progress in the Panglong peace process, and recently, disenfranchisement of more than a million people from ethnic minority areas, are responsible for this. Against this backdrop, NLDs reaching out to ethnic parties to form a unity government is a welcome step; something it did not do after the 2015 elections.
What does it mean?
NLDs resounding win and the popular support it enjoys solidify the party's position. It also provides the former a space to manoeuvre and seize more power from the military's domain. The mandate also empowers NLD to meaningfully engage with the ethnic minorities in the peace process to bring decades of internal strife to an end. Reaching out to ethnic parties after the election is a positive first step, but the contours of NLDs plans are still unclear; it has to be seen whether NLD can take-off from this positive beginning.
As regards to the democracy project, it is too early to say whether there would be deepening of democracy anytime soon, notwithstanding the successful elections. The military still retains about 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and controls key ministries. All in all, finding a constitutional space vis-a-vis the military, handling the economic downturn and worsening pandemic, taking forward the peace process and furthering the democratization project would be major challenges confronting the NLD government.