“From Voting by Party to Voting for Candidates in Myanmar in 2020?” by Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2019/90, 31 October 2019

Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party announced in late September that it would consider taking advice from ‘parents of towns’ (myomi myopha), or influential people in electoral constituencies, in selecting candidates for the national and regional polls due in November 2020. This decision has significant political implications and raises questions about the trajectory of electoral politics in the country, nine years into its political transition.
NLD Chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi famously told voters before the previous polls, held in 2015, to look not at candidates but at the party.  And, in fact, analysts and commentators believe that the appeal of her party was the most important factor behind the NLD’s landslide victory that year.

Despite such strong claims that voters cast their ballots on the basis of parties in 2015, it is more correct to say that NLD supporters’ decision to vote for NLD candidates reflected their focus on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi more than on her party. In the minds of those supporters, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the party. Many, if not most, people voted for the NLD not necessarily because they support the party but because Amay (Mother) Suu is their dear leader.
However, the political context is different now. After coming to power in March 2016, the NLD has increasingly faced questions about the capacity and performance of its representatives in the parliament and of the officials to whom it has given government posts. Critics, analysts, and commentators have accordingly sounded out warnings that asking voters to focus only on the party in deciding how to cast their ballots may not work a second time.

Whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-centred voting will bring success for the NLD again also is now a question. The recent announcement that the NLD will take the advice of local notables on candidate selection shows that the party, despite having the towering figure of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as its chair, is aware of the changing electoral landscape — a landscape on which some of its erstwhile supporters feel disappointed with its record in government.
Data from two or three general elections would make solid research on the relative importance of personalities, political parties, and individual candidates as factors in voting behaviour in Myanmar possible. Today, however, those data do not yet exist. It  is thus difficult to give a decisive answer to the question of whether voters will now look more at candidates than at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.

That said, it is not wrong to say that the 2020 polls will be more competitive, and the results perhaps less predictable, because at least some voters may consider both leading personalities and political parties on the one hand and individual candidates on the other before marking their ballots.

Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.