Myanmar Elections: Change the Only Constant

As vote counts stream in from Sunday’s general elections, the expectation is that the majority of voters have chosen the incumbent party. This is a reflection of their desire for slow and gradual change in the country’s development.

Supporters of the National League for Democracy
Supporters of the NLD party react in front of the party’s headquarters in Yangon on November 8, 2020, as votes are counted after polls closed in the election. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu, AFP)
Moe Thuzar

Moe Thuzar

9 November 2020

Over 30 million voters went to the polls on Sunday, in Myanmar’s second openly-contested general election since the State Peace and Development Council military government effected the start of a democratic transition in 2011.

Myanmar’s 2020 vote is the fourth multi-party general election since 1990. It is the third in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) is competing for seats, and the second held under a constitution drafted and adopted during military rule. The 2020 elections also constitute the first experience in which the NLD has faced the voters as the incumbent ruling party. Early results suggest that the party will repeat the landslide victories that it won in 1990 and 2015.

If achieved, this feat will be all the more impressive in light of challenging circumstances in which the party sought the electorate’s backing. The NLD sought a second mandate amidst Covid-19 uncertainties, critical assessments of its first-term performance, and a debate on Facebook about whether casting a “No Vote” was citizens’ best use of their ballots. The NLD and Myanmar have come under international scrutiny over to the Rohingya refugee crisis, though domestic sentiments on the issue were inversely proportional to external criticisms.

Further, the mergers of ethnic political parties in several states affected by armed conflict led to predictions of a lower vote share for the NLD in those states. The surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths, the Union Election Commission’s (UEC) cancellation of voting in several ethnic areas after citing security concerns, errors in voter registration, and political posturing by Myanmar’s military chief have added to concerns about voter turn-out.

These circumstances notwithstanding, analysts and supporters expect another NLD sweep in the 2020 polls, mainly because the party represents for many the only choice for continuing the democratic transition set in train since 2011.

Yet, the votes for the incumbent also engender in them a desire for change … To them, the NLD embodies change, albeit a process of change that will continue to be long and slow.

Elections in Myanmar are a race to win a majority of seats in the legislature – this gives various entities the power to select the country’s president. Members of the bicameral legislature vote on their preferences among three nominees – one from the Lower House (Pyithu Hluttaw), one from the Upper House (Amyotha Hluttaw), and one from the 25 per cent military contingent in each house. The nominee winning the most votes becomes president, and the other two vice-presidents. 

Media outlets have crunched the numbers. Myanmar’s bicameral legislature comprises 440 seats in the lower house and 224 seats in the upper house. The military occupies 25 per cent of the 664 seats. The NLD needs to secure a two-thirds majority of the remaining 498 seats in the Union Parliament in order to secure the presidency. Voting cancellations due to security reasons have barred candidates from competing in 15 Pyithu Hluttaw constituencies and for 7 Amyotha Hluttaw seats. A party therefore needs at least 320 seats – for security, about 322 seats – to have the votes to elect the country’s president. 

Mindful of the mathematics, the NLD’s election campaign has emphasised the need for supporters to show up to vote “to entrench victory”. The military’s statements that asserted that the UEC – and by extension the ruling party – was responsible to ensure free, fair and smoothly run elections also spurred the ruling party and its supporters to respond.

In response, NLD Chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sent a message to supporters via her NLD Facebook page, urging them not to “fall into the trap” of responding to provocations (alluding to the military’s statement) . Numerous online campaigns encouraging people to vote for the NLD sprung up organically among the electorate and went viral. These counter-moves on the part of the NLD appear have paid dividends.

Screenshot from Facebook Live
Vote-counting in Kawhmu Township polling station 4, Natsingone Village. (Screenshot from Facebook)

Live updates of election results so far suggest that some 33.8 million votes were cast on 8 November. Some one million voters out of the registered eligible 37.4 million were unable to vote because of the purported security concerns noted above. Votes cast on 8 November thus represent the ballots of about 90 per cent of eligible voters, a record performance in Myanmar’s contemporary history – a significant increase from the voter turnout of 70 per cent in the 2015 elections (when the NLD won 77 per cent of the seats in Myanmar’s legislature). Votes for state and regional legislatures also suggest that the NLD did not face the anticipated stiff competition in some ethnic areas.

As final vote counts pour in from the various constituencies across the country to be certified by the UEC, voters in Myanmar now have access to interactive live updates of election results, tracking the race to see whether the NLD will attain the threshold number of 322 seats.

The polls in Myanmar took place days after the presidential elections in the United States. Record voter turnouts there – a result of the American electorate’s desire to recapture the visions for hope and change – have captured the imaginations of people in Myanmar. But in Myanmar, the vote was for the incumbent. Several voters who had not voted in 2015 did so in 2020.

Yet, the votes for the incumbent also engender in them a desire for change. With the 2020 vote, the people of Myanmar have shown their preference to continue with the NLD in the quest for change and transformation. To them, the NLD embodies change, albeit a process of change that will continue to be long and slow, as Myanmar grapples with decades-long legacies of local grievances, ethnic divisions, and the added challenge of “building back better” from the impact of Covid19 on the economy and peoples’ lives.

Moe Thuzar is an ISEAS Fellow and co-coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/177

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.