The long read: a look at what’s at stake in Myanmar’s landmark election

Rising media freedoms and economic liberalisation have been hailed as signs November’s poll will be a major step to democracy. But with Aung San Suu Kyi barred from the presidency, Myanmar’s military may have other ideas.

Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is the favourite to win the country’s general election but she is barred from the presidency. Ye Aung Thu / AFP
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Myanmar this November will hold its first general election since the formation of a nominally civilian government in 2011, sweeping away more than five decades of military rule.

With a political cast that includes the international democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, military generals, the old vanguard of protesters from a 1988 student uprising and a new generation of young activists, the run up to the event on November 8 will draw worldwide attention.

The question most commonly asked outside Myanmar is: “Can Aung San Suu Kyi win?”

But any answer reveals just how convoluted Myanmar’s political system is.

One thing is clear. Suu Kyi cannot become president after the next election.

She is barred from the position under Article 59F of the constitution. It states that if one of your “legitimate children ... owes allegiance to a foreign power” you are disqualified. Both Suu Kyi’s sons have British passports, as was of course well known by the generals who drew up the constitution in 2008 (a constitution “backed” by 94 per cent of people a week after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country.)

Even were Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to win a landslide victory – a result some observers have predicted – it would be effectively impossible for its MPs to change the constitution to allow her to take up the post. The military retains a 25 per cent block of unelected seats in the Hluttaw (parliament), and the constitution requires a 75 per cent majority before any amendment to it can be passed.

The last attempt to do so, in June, failed despite a majority of elected parliamentarians having voted in favour of changing the clause that bars Suu Kyi from the top job.

Observers believe it is extremely unlikely that whatever the election result, the military would be willing to allow her to assume the presidency. Such a move is what independent political analyst and former International Labour Organisation representative to Myanmar, Richard Horsey, describes as a “red line” for the generals.

The reluctance of the generals to step back from politics was reiterated last month when the country’s most powerful military leader, General Ming Aung Hlaing, spoke to the BBC. He said that the military would “respect the election result”, but made clear any handover by the general to a full civilian government would need to wait until ceasefire deals have been concluded with all of Myanmar’s many ethnic armed groups.

“It could be five years or 10 years [until that happens] – I couldn’t say,” he told the BBC.

So with the generals seeking to hold on to their power and Suu Kyi (who also spent 15 years under house arrest) barred from the presidency, should these elections still be considered a sign of democratic progress in Myanmar?

Supporters of the president Thein Sein’s reforms point to an expanded media sector, increased platforms for political debate, and the involvement of international experts and independent observers. This should contribute, they say, towards an election very different from the sham poll of 2010 – which Suu Kyi’s party boycotted.

Most observers agree the government is keen to see a credible election. However the military’s stranglehold, along with what rights groups have called an increasing “climate of fear” for journalists and a resurgence in political prisoner numbers, all raise serious questions about the extent of democratic freedoms.

Even those who take a generally positive view of recent reforms, are becoming more circumspect when it comes to using the term “democratisation” in relation to Myanmar’s current situation.

“I think ‘democratisation’ is the wrong word. I prefer ‘liberalisation’,” says Mr Horsey.

“The military’s involvement in politics is not compatible with democratic norms, but the liberalisation process has gone pretty far, pretty fast – from a military dictatorship with no elections and where no debate or criticisms were allowed, to the current situation with one of the most vibrant print media in [South East Asia], pretty open discussion of politics, and – so far – a fairly impressive effort to deliver credible elections.”

But the elections do face a number of significant practical challenges that must be overcome if they are to be considered free and fair.

Armed conflicts continue in several states, and with time rapidly running out for any kind of nationwide ceasefire agreement to be signed before the election, the possibility remains that many people living within these areas will be unable to vote.

A second potential problem lies with the voter lists. Suu Kyi and others have raised serious concerns about significant flaws in the current lists, which include many people who are deceased and omit a large number of living voters.

Such technical errors are not unnatural in a country trying to modernise after years of isolation, but nevertheless present challenges for those hoping to deliver a fair result.

More politically damaging from an international view, however, is the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have been deliberately excluded from voter lists because they are Rohingya Muslims and not recognised by the government as citizens.

Not everyone is as convinced about the progress of rights reforms in Myanmar as Mr Horsey.

“We’re already seeing signs of the security services arresting more critics – students, journalists and activists – bringing into doubt the much-vaunted granting of basic freedoms of assembly, expression and association,” says David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch.

“The elections will in all likelihood be conducted transparently and with extensive civil society participation, far more than the tightly controlled farce of 2010, but the military knows full well that the elections won’t substantively challenge their interests, even when in 2016 a more representative parliament is formed.”

Despite this, he says that the elections “will be a major step in a long-term process of achieving full democracy”.

So how might Myanmar’s political landscape look immediately following the election?

With no official opinion polls being carried out, ideas about the result remain speculative. About 30 million are eligible to vote out of a population of about 53 million, and few observers have so far been willing to make any kind of clear prediction.

However, a survey conducted last year by Roman David of Lingnan University in Hong Kong and Ian Holliday of the University of Hong Kong in Myanmar’s two main regions (Yangon and Mandalay) and three of its ethnic states (Kachin, Kayin and Shan), found the NLD was by far the most popular party – supported by 52 per cent of prospective voters. The military-backed ruling party – the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – was supported by just 19 per cent.

Ethnic parties, when grouped together, would draw the support of 23 per cent of voters, according to the poll, giving their representatives a potentially influential role if neither of the two main parties win an outright majority.

However, it seems Suu Kyi’s party is unwilling to form an alliance with the ethnic parties ahead of the elections. Myanmar’s first-past-the-post system, along with Suu Kyi’s support among the Bamar majority, gives the NLD a significant chance of gaining an overall majority.

And while the ethic representative parties are likely to claim the majority of votes in their own regions, one increasingly powerful element could encourage more voters from the Buddhist Bamar majority to put their faith in the current rulers.

Members of powerful group of Buddhist monks known as the Ma Ba Tha – whose demands have already led to the introduction of a number of contentious laws in the name of “protecting race and religion” – have called on people not to vote for the NLD, which it declares to be soft on such matters .

While Suu Kyi’s relative silence on the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state has drawn widespread international condemnation, even her tepid hints that the situation is not ideal have led to her being painted as “pro-Muslim” by Buddhist hardliners in Rakhine and elsewhere.

With anti-Muslim sentiment running high among vast swathes of the Buddhist population (Rohingya are excluded from holding citizenship and are not allowed to vote), the impact of fundamentalist religious nationalism could potentially draw votes away from the NLD towards the USDP.

However, rather than seeing such challenges as a sign she should work to build closer links with other allies, Suu Kyi – who has a reputation for refusing to compromise on internal party matters – appears to be pushing away those she considers a threat to her authority in the NLD.

On August 2, the release of the NLD candidate lists revealed she had snubbed applications from a number of well-known activists, most notably Ko Ko Gyi, leader of 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, who took part in the 1988 student rebellion against military rule.

The move has shocked political observers: they were set to have been shoo-ins and are now likely to stand as independents with party replacements unknown and are less likely to win. Either way, it means lost allies for Suu Kyi.

So if not Suu Kyi, who might be the next president of Myanmar?

The country’s president is not chosen directly be the electorate, nor would the post necessarily go to the leader of the party with the largest number of seats. Instead, the elected lower house, the elected upper house and the unelected military block will each put forward a presidential candidate. All members will then vote on which of the three should become president in a process that is expected to take until March or April to complete.

Regardless of which party wins the largest number of seats a considerable amount of political horse-trading will have to go on before Myanmar learns who its next president will be.

The NLD, which had been holding out until June for the possibility of a constitutional change that would have allowed Suu Kyi to stand, is yet to produce a clear candidate from within its own ranks.

Rumours have long circulated that Suu Kyi and parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, a former general and the current leader of the ruling USDP, have been working on a deal under which he would distance himself from the military and move closer to Suu Kyi’s goals. In return she would back him for the presidency, but he is also taking a chance that by supporting her, rather than the USDP, he’ll get the top job.

Of course the possibility remains that the face of Myanmar’s presidency will remain the same. With a quarter of seats safely in military hands, the USDP would need to form a coalition amounting to just a third of the elected seats to ensure its preferred candidate becomes president.

Late last month, president Thein Sein, who for a time was thought to have ruled himself out the running, declared that he would consider standing again.

So while these elections do offer the prospect for yet more changes in Myanmar’s rapidly developing society, there is the considerable likelihood that many aspects of the country’s political scene will not change.

Sean Turnell, an economics professor from Macquarie University in Sydney who has written extensively about Myanmar, including on the 2010 election, says there is still reason for those who would seek greater democratic progress to remain optimistic – despite an unchanged agenda for the country’s military.

“I think the motivation of the military remains the same,” he says referring to the generals’ goal of modernising the economy and creating wider international business ties to reduce the power and financial influence China gained over Myanmar during the decades it was subject to economic sanctions by other countries.

But he suggests that while the military will cede as little power as possible, “events on election day, the results and both the reaction of the Burmese people and international community to these events and outcomes will determine all”.

The military should not, he says, underestimate the Myanmar public’s desire for democracy.

“My own feeling,” he says, “is that tiger might be beginning to stir”.

Fiona MacGregor is a freelance journalist based in Yangon.