Paul Vrieze | 17 December 2020
Last month, Myanmar held its second democratic elections since the end of military rule.
While less closely watched than the historic 2015 vote, which marked the transition to what is seen as a hybrid political regime, the recent polls still had some surprises for observers and important implications for the country’s political future and internal conflict.
Ahead of the polls, media reports and some surveys indicated that public interest in democratic politics appeared to be diminishing. Meanwhile, opposition parties—especially those representing the country’s aggrieved ethnic minorities—were confident that they could reduce the National League for Democracy (NLD)'s majority in parliament. After all, the NLD failed to deliver on its pledges to bring peace and economic growth and to put the army under democratic control during the party’s first term in office. Nonetheless, a record 70% of voters turned out on November 8—braving a devastating spike in COVID-19 infections—to overwhelmingly back Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD for another term in office. The party gained overall control of about 80% of contested seats in both national parliament and the 14 state/region legislatures, surpassing its 2015 landslide win.
Local and international election observers declared the polls mostly free of irregularities. However, the United States-based Carter Center noted “the exclusion of more than two million people from the electoral process” due to controversial vote cancellations in conflict-affected parts of ethnic states, and the continued disenfranchisement of the Muslim Rohingya minority in western Rakhine State.
The NLD’s win completes its dominance of the democratic space that has emerged during the political transition, further marginalizing the opposition. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—the only other national-level party and the army’s proxy—was reduced to a mere 7% of contested seats in the national parliament, while ethnic parties’ share fell slightly to a total of about 10%. Only in some of the ethnic states did the opposition win a significant share of seats. The results leave State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing as the dominant political actors in Myanmar’s hybrid system. Since the army—despite seeing its proxy collapse—retains extensive constitutional powers, such as autonomy in all security matters and control of a quarter of seats in national and local legislatures. Based on its previous term, the NLD is likely to continue its approach of eschewing major reform that would challenge the military and dismantle repressive, junta-era laws. Instead, in recent years it has preferred to use the military-designed political system to its advantage and even resisted attempts to devolve the highly centralized government structure and to reform the winner-take-all voting system
While a national party that draws members from different communities, the NLD leadership is largely Burmese and since taking office its politics have mostly catered to this majority (who represent an estimated two-thirds of the 54 million-strong population). The government mostly left ethnic parties on the sidelines. It failed to substantively engage ethnic minorities over their longstanding demands for autonomy in a federal union, economic equality and cultural rights, despite earlier NLD commitments to federalism. Under the NLD government’s watch, a relatively successful nationwide ceasefire process with ethnic armed organizations stalled and conflict has escalated. As army abuses against civilians spiked during the violence, the NLD stayed largely silent, angering ethnic leaders. (While there was international outrage after Aung San Suu Kyi defended the army’s alleged acts of genocide against the Rohingya, her stance is supported by many in Myanmar.)
Despite the NLD’s majoritarian policies, recent election results show that most Burmese and ethnic minority voters continue to see Aung San Suu Kyi as the best hope for developing the country and removing the military’s powers. Her towering popularity, reportedly together with an effective social media strategy and the support from private businesses, crushed the small ethnic parties. Among the 17 that won seats in national and state legislatures this year, only six parties totaled more than five seats. Ahead of this year’s polls, many ethnic parties representing the same minority had merged to avoid vote-splitting in their areas, but this strategy had little impact. After two democratic electoral cycles, ethnic parties are left disappointed over their lack of political influence and face existential doubts about the effectiveness of their ethnic identity politics approach.
A striking feature of the ethnic parties’ results is the significant differences between the seven ethnic states. Ethnic parties kept only a fraction of contested seats away from the NLD in Kachin, Karen, and Chin states. While in Mon and Kayah states, ethnic parties fared significantly better, taking several national parliament seats and chipping away at the NLD’s majority in state legislatures. Ethnic representatives performed by far the best in Shan and Rakhine states. Parties representing the Shan and the smaller Ta’ang and Pa-O minorities won a significant share of national parliament seats, keeping the NLD from a majority in the Shan State parliament. Rakhine parties took most national parliament seats elected in the state and fell just short of a majority in state parliament. These relatively successful parties largely repeated their 2015 vote results and, as some scholars have argued, likely performed well due to the concentration of their ethnic group in a limited number of constituencies. Moreover, the well-established Shan and Rakhine parties are more institutionalized. However, a deeper understanding of ethnic parties’ varied performances in democratic politics remains lacking.
While the ethnic parties now hold some leverage in the process of appointing the speakers of parliament in Rakhine, Shan and Kayah states, the NLD’s popularity and the design of the political system still limits their influence. The army retains power in state legislatures through control of a quarter of seats and a limited USDP presence. At the same time, the central government can appoint a chief minister without the support of state parliament. Following the 2015 vote, the NLD used this law to bypass a Rakhine party majority in state parliament and install its own chief minister, creating political tensions that contributed to the escalation of an insurgency by the Arakan (Rakhine) Army.
After the recent elections, in a somewhat hopeful sign for the ethnic parties, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party sent an open letter to many ethnic parties asking them to join it in building a peaceful and democratic federal union. In Shan State, expectations are now growing that the NLD will approach ethnic parties to form an NLD-led coalition in state government and parliament that would keep the army and its proxy party at bay. If that occurs, it would be a rare instance of cooperation between the NLD and ethnic parties during Myanmar’s transition, and it could become a major catalyst for reviving the moribund peace process. If the past five years offer any indication, however, the NLD will have little appetite for power-sharing, other than through its forced balancing act with the army. Leaving it unlikely that the next government will meaningfully address the root causes of Myanmar’s long-running conflict.
Paul Vrieze is a doctoral student in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies, where he conducts research on Myanmar’s political transition and minority rights. Prior to this, he worked in Myanmar as a journalist and with the U.N. Refugee Agency. He is on Twitter @Paul_Vrieze.