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Myanmar Elections: A Turning Point for Reform?

Myanmar’s general elections have now been set for 8 November 2015, representing an important turning point for change and reform in this poor and under-developed country.

The 2015 election will be for 330 seats in the Lower House, 168 seats in the Upper House, and 644 seats in 14 regional assemblies, plus 29 seats reserved for ethnic representatives. In each house, 25% of the seats are reserved for representatives of the military, an arrangement unchanged from the 2010 election, in accordance with the former military regime’s constitution adopted in a flawed referendum in May 2008. Proposals to amend this constitution were recently voted down in the parliament in which the government party – aligned with the military – currently holds a large majority. The possibility of reducing the very visible military presence in the parliament has been discussed quite widely, and is likely to happen after the elections, especially since this arrangement follows the example of Indonesia where a similar requirement was dropped some years ago.

The current Myanmar president, U Thein Sein, a retired general who contested the 2010 as leader of the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has until recently not disclosed his intentions for the elections. Since Thein Sein is no longer formally head of the USDP, having had to resign upon taking the presidency, it has been generally assumed he would not seek a second term as president. Thein Sein adopted a reformist agenda as president, and promoted reconciliation and peace negotiations with all ethnic groups, although the proposed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement has still not been formally agreed to by all parties.

National League for Democracy (NLD) Chair, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be standing for re-election, although she is not eligible to be a candidate for the presidency, which will be decided after the election results have been announced. (A proposal to overturn this constitutional bar, based on her two sons being British citizens, was recently voted down in the parliament, when the appointed military representatives in the parliament holding 25% of the seats, voted against it.) Suu Kyi is currently chair of the Rule of Law and Tranquillity Committee in the parliament.

In the absence of public opinion polls on voting intentions, it is impossible to predict the election outcome, but the opposition NLD is assumed to have a good chance of winning a majority, as they did in 1990 when the then military coup leaders declined to hand over power. So far, the NLD has not announced many detailed policies, but the overall direction of reform in Myanmar is unlikely to change, with a great deal of “unfinished business” remaining. Indeed, with the influence of Myanmar’s military still so dominant, and concerns emerging about some of Myanmar’s political changes being slowed down, a strong performance by the NLD should reinvigorate Myanmar’s reform program. Some uncertainty understandably exists about the NLD’s capacity to oversee the next phase of Myanmar’s transition after the elections.

Myanmar may never be as well prepared for this general election. Yet with a voter enrolment of around 30 million, and voting permitted across the country and overseas, it is a very substantial administrative undertaking. This remains the case even if a few areas are excluded from voting on security grounds, as was the case in the 2010 elections.

This time, Myanmar has not only been the beneficiary of international “best practice” election expertise before the elections, but the quasi-independent Union Election Commission seems to have been making more intensive preparations for these elections, and in the process engaging in its most extensive consultations ever with the electorate. Party registration and voter registration has been carried out more thoroughly than in previous elections, including the 2010 elections. Election management staff, party officials, and independent civil society representatives have been better trained in their roles. Much greater domestic and international observation of the voting process, including a specially prepared code of conduct for observers, will ensure better transparency.

All of these factors will contribute to an improved election process, and provide a badly needed measure of post-election political stability. Ultimately, this will be essential if Myanmar is going to be fulfil the promises of its political, economic and social transition.

Trevor Wilson is currently a Visiting Fellow, Department of Political & Social Change at ANU and is formerly the Australian Ambassador to Myanmar (2000-03). This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.

Published July 23, 2015