A Primer on Myanmar’s Elections of 2015

Myanmar's Lower House
Teaser Image Caption
Myanmar's Lower House

What is at stake? Will the elections be free? Who is competing and how does the electoral process work? Our FAQ on the most democratic elections in Myanmar since 1960.

What are the Myanmar elections about? 

For the first time since 1960, elections in Myanmar are going to be held in what can be called a largely democratic setting. Furthermore, these elections are going to be inclusive, since all the major parties and many more are going to participate. This means the coming parliament and government could possibly be more representative and democratic. There will also be more public participation than in the last three elections (1990, 2010, and 2012 by-elections). Therefore, there are more hopes being pinned on these elections.

The lead-up to the 2010 contest had taken place under the military junta’s rule. The 2015 event, by comparison, is being approached in a freer, more highly charged atmosphere. There are going to be more parties, slightly more electoral constituencies, and, of course, more voters, since many young people have reached voting age in the intervening years.

If Myanmar’s post-1988 elections are seen in perspective:

  • The 1990 elections turned out to be a fiasco and a badge of enduring shame for the junta (called the State Law and Order Restoration Council at that time). The National League for Democracy (NLD) had been the clear-cut winner.
  • The 2010 elections were dull and marked by the NLD’s absence and massive vote fraud. As a result, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won by a huge margin. It was a big disappointment.
  • In the 2012 by-elections, the NLD re-entered the electoral scene and swept all but one of the seats it contested.

Campaigning began on 9 September, 60 days prior to the elections. These general elections will also be the first in which all the major parties will be competing. These will be the second round of general elections held under the controversial and greatly contested 2008 constitution. They come after the first term of a semi-elected, partly civilian government. The first round of general elections in 2010 and accompanying reforms had led to the revival of a democratic system of government (which this country had had from 1948 till 1962) and a more open political atmosphere – although the degree to which this has happened is still hotly debated.

Will the elections be fair and free?

There is a considerable amount of worry about this. The incomplete and inaccurate voter lists have led to concerns about the possible disqualification of votes.

One can imagine the amount of distrust that exists about the establishment in power. And this year, for the first time since 1988, the political game in Myanmar will come into full play without distortions. Stronger forces – some new, some resurgent – will enter the fray. There is now a much freer press. And no matter how the proposed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is viewed, ethnic armed organisations (EAO), heretofore in rebellion, will legally participate – directly or indirectly.

However, there is no level playing field: Nearly all Muslim candidates have been disqualified on flimsy grounds (by the Elections Commission) and dropped (by the NLD). A large number of Muslim voters – mainly in the state of Rakhine – have been effectively disenfranchised. This alone means the elections cannot be regarded as fair.

Then there are the voter lists. Despite years of technical and other support from international donors and millions in assistance, particularly from the EU, the chairman of the Union Elections Commission has said that he can ensure the accuracy of only 30 per cent of the voter lists. This does not bode well for the accuracy of results and leads people to remind themselves of the massive vote-rigging that had been carried out during the last round of general elections, in 2010. Thousands of “advance votes” had appeared from nowhere back then. This time, it could well come to a situation in which tens of thousands of voters will be told at the polling booth on election day that they cannot vote because information about them is incorrect. All of this cuts at the very foundation of democracy and elections, and it is imperative for everyone to take urgent steps to prevent it, both here and abroad.

Who will be competing and what are their chances?

The elections to be held on 8 November will be the biggest in Myanmar’s history – 93 parties and 6039 candidates have been registered to contest in the following constituencies for the 1171 seats:

The political parties have jumped into the election campaign enthusiastically. The two major parties, the NLD and the USDP, experienced major missteps in the month just before the campaign began. Their approaches can be summed up as follows:

The incumbent USDP realises well that it will have to divest itself of a number of seats. The question is: How far will it go to prevent this from happening?

The NLD is confident that it will pick up many seats (but not a landslide victory) in the Bamar (ethnic Burman) regions and perhaps even gain a majority in Parliament. Even though its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is constitutionally barred from becoming president, the party’s MPs will have a considerable say in nominating the speakers and the president.

The ethnic nationality parties, which comprise two-thirds of the total number of parties, will no doubt do well in their respective constituencies and regions.

The USDP and the NLD will field more than a thousand candidates each, but it is undeniable that neither of them can win all across the country. As such, there will be other parties that will hold the swing votes in Parliament. These are:

  • the ethnic parties, especially the larger ones, which are expected to win majorities in their home states, e.g. the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, the Arakan National Party, the Chin parties;
  • the National Development Party (NDP): As a new party that is fielding 354 candidates, it was one of the last parties to register and serves as a key backup for the USDP;
  • The National Democratic Force (NDF): It sees itself as a key pivot and arbiter in the elections and after, and has 269 candidates standing for election.

Following the elections, coalitions are going to be a necessity, but most of the major parties are unprepared for such an eventuality. The present-day political environment in Myanmar is weak when it comes to building alliances and coalitions. One reason is that there has been little actual working experience in doing so for half a century or more. Whereas the major political parties and their leaders have not given it much attention, the numerous small parties know that they will have to work in alliances if they are to have any appreciable impact.

In the elections, the incumbent establishment will be fielding this “triptych” – loyalists in the USDP + NDP + NDF to incumbent, President Thein Sein.

Yet another resource for power are the ethnic parties. If votes are tied in the seven regions, ethnic MPs and parties will be cajoled, possibly through the use of chief-ministerships and cabinet posts.

So no matter how well the NLD does, this three-party tacit alliance believes they can carry the day. If they can pull off a majority, Thein Sein could be renominated. Vote-rigging cannot be ruled out, but it will not be on the scale of 2010.

However, neither party has announced its candidate for president, who will be elected by Parliament early next year.

Who will elect the president and how will this take place?

The president is not elected by popular vote but through a parliamentary election; at its first sitting (which is expected to be in February 2016), the electoral body nominates the president.

It is commonly supposed that, since the military holds 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, any party or bloc that comes up with 26 per cent of the seats can ally with the military and appoint the president. However, this is erroneous, since the presidential nomination is a two-step process and there are two rounds of voting. Three groups in the Union Parliament will nominate one presidential candidate each.

In the 2010 elections, the USDP won overwhelmingly, so the election of the vice-presidents and president was a straightforward affair. This time, the process will have to reflect the new realities and will not be so simple.

Upper House candidate: An equal number of seats are allocated to each state and region. Hence, the seven states (and therefore ethnic nationalities) will together have half the number of MPs (84). Although not mandated, it is reasonable to assume that a national of ethnic origin will be chosen as the presidential candidate (as was the case in 2011).

Military candidate: This candidate will be nominated by the Commander-in-Chief. It is unlikely that this candidate will be elected president.

Lower House candidate: Not only does the Lower House have more members, it is the chamber that reflects overall election results most realistically. As in 2010 it is quite probable that its candidate will eventually be chosen as president in February 2016. It has to be remembered that the military, which holds 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, does not take part in the Lower House’s selection of a presidential candidate.

The current Parliament’s term ends on 30 January 2016, and the crucial first sitting will probably convene the following week. There could possibly be at least three contenders for the Lower House’s nomination, and this is where the cobbling together of votes is going to be decisive. The USDP has the advantage here not only of being the incumbent but also in having better relations with the swing-vote-holding parties than the NLD.

What is the role of religion in the elections?

There has been an emergence of religious extremism. There is now a powerful monks’ organisation – the Ma-Ba-Tha (the Burmese acronym for the Organisation to Protect Race and Religion) – that has very little to do with the teachings of Buddhism. But it has pushed through four unsavoury religion-focussed laws and is set to play a part in the coming elections.

Shortly after the partial revival of a democratic system began in 2011, civil war returned with a vengeance in the state of Kachin and anti-Muslim violence erupted. It is to be noted that Buddhist communities suffered, too. Ma-Ba-Tha has a nationalist element that is fixated upon “protecting the faith” against incursions from other religions, and it is making efforts towards raising the morals of Buddhist youth. There are varying shades of extremism in it. Farther out, there is a real rabid fringe. Inflammatory rhetoric from this cabal can ignite the larger movement at critical moments.

The Buddhist nationalist so-called 969 movement and its vigilantes come close to being the Ku Klux Klan of present-day Myanmar. Another common feature here is the silence and implicit support of the majority of Bamar[1] Buddhists. And the medium upon which these artists ply their skills is a gullible public that is easily swayed by nationalist sentiments.

Democracy and human rights had been the catchwords and slogans during the long struggle against the military dictatorship. Now they appear to ring hollow and are in danger of being deemed partisan and discriminatory. Democratisation is not so much the primary concern now – it will happen. What we need to worry about are the “collateral damage” and by-products. Even the persistence of the military’s role in the state – onerous as it is – should take less precedence.

Finally, what is the outlook for a democratic Myanmar?

The constitutional amendment bill[2] was defeated in Parliament, and any amendment will have to wait till the next term of office. And with the parliamentarians’ powers so restricted, one opinion is that the real action will have to take place at the ceasefire / peace talks. The EAOs will have to press for federal articles as part of the deal (and perhaps this is what the military wants – federalism in exchange for disarmament). The EAOs have to act in accord with the ethnic political parties, and another major effort is going to be needed there.

A more democratic constitution does not mean that society also adopts stronger democratic values such as tolerance for minorities. Too much attention is being paid to the superstructure of a democratic system and not enough to the real substance of such a system.

It is understood that in impassioned situations such as closely-fought elections, expediency, compromise, and even connivance are commonplace. But they can also place the country’s neck in a noose. As the political parties gear up for the campaign and bring out their assorted paraphernalia, the country has to be warned that the real questions are being missed, often deliberately.

A landslide victory does not bode well for the country. It would definitely be better for votes to be evened out, and if a coalition government were to be called for, so much the better. The time has come for politicians in Myanmar and the people to start working together instead of against each other all the time. Beyond the elections, Myanmar still faces daunting challenges, which can be overcome only by learning to work in the common national interest while respecting diversity. That is what Myanmar really needs and, ultimately, what democracy is about.

This article is part of our dossier: Elections in Myanmar.


[1] Ethnic Burmese.

[2] This refers to Article 59 (f) of the Constitution, which bans someone from becoming president who has foreign relatives of first generation.