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The 2020 general election is scheduled to take place at a critical moment in Myanmar’s transition from half a century under military rule. The advent of the National League for Democracy to government office in March 2016 was greeted by all the country’s peoples as the opportunity to bring about real change. But since this time, the ethnic peace process has faltered, constitutional reform has not started, and conflict has escalated in several parts of the country, becoming emergencies of grave international concern.
Covid-19 represents a new – and serious – challenge to the conduct of free and fair elections. Postponements cannot be ruled out. But the spread of the pandemic is not expected to have a significant impact on the election outcome as a long as it goes ahead within constitutionally-appointed times. The NLD is still widely predicted to win, albeit on reduced scale. Questions, however, will remain about the credibility of the polls during a time of unprecedented restrictions and health crisis.
There are three main reasons to expect NLD victory. Under the country’s complex political system, the mainstream party among the ethnic Bamar majority always win the polls. In the population at large, a victory for the NLD is regarded as the most likely way to prevent a return to military government. The Covid-19 crisis and campaign restrictions hand all the political advantages to the NLD and incumbent authorities.
To improve election performance, ethnic nationality parties are introducing a number of new measures, including “party mergers” and “no-compete” agreements. “Vote-splitting” is widely perceived as the reason for polling weakness in the past. But while this should improve the vote for the better-organised parties, this is unlikely to change the political balance in the national legislatures – only in the state assemblies. Ethnic nationality parties have been unable to make a significant mark in all general elections since independence in 1948.
In the present political era, the marginalisation of non-Bamar peoples is inherent under the county’s “first-past-the-post” election system. Notions of ethnicity and identity are articulated under the 2008 constitution but not addressed. Nationality peoples are represented by “states”, “self-administered areas”, “ethnic affairs ministers” and constituencies won by ethnic parties. But there is little meaningful autonomy; parties among the Bamar majority predominate in national politics; chief ministers for the states and regions are centrally appointed by the Myanmar President; and the armed forces (Tatmadaw) continue to be reserved a quarter of all seats in all the legislatures. To widen representation, the promotion of more female and youth candidates has been discussed for the upcoming elections. But there will not be any largescale change.
The elections cannot be divorced from the ethnic peace process. Myanmar remains among the most-conflict divided countries in Asia. Whole or partial cancellations will occur in constituencies in several nationality areas, increasing fears of voting irregularities and manipulation. Internally displaced persons, refugees and migrant workers abroad will largely be excluded, and the issue of voter registration is becoming a key issue. The Covid-19 emergency is exacerbating all these difficulties.
Elections will not address the flaws in the present political system nor further the way to nationwide peace. Significant reflection and reorientation in the polling aftermath will be essential. Both Asian and Western governments believe that the successful conduct of the elections should mark another step forward in political direction. But the most important outcome will be the lessons learned and how they are used to advance democratic reform and ethnic peace in the building of a union of equality and inclusion that truly reaches to all peoples. Myanmar is only at the beginning of political change – not at the end.