The ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme organised a webinar on “Myanmar’s 2020 Vote: A Post-Election Analysis” to hear different perspectives and research viewpoints on some of the key factors that contributed to the election outcome, and looking ahead to how this outcome would shape the post-election landscape.
MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Monday, November 16, 2020 – Myanmar’s electorate spoke on November 8 with a resounding vote that returned the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) for a second term with a higher number of votes in the Hluttaw, Myanmar’s legislature.
The NLD’s victory was an assured outcome, and had largely been predicted (and interpreted) as a result of enduring support for its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD’s wins in many ethnic areas, and a high voter turnout amidst a Covid-19 surge across Myanmar proved wrong several assumptions by analysts and commentators about the vote expectations of ethnic political parties.
Mr Khin Zaw Win of the Tampadipa Institute, Mr Kyaw Zwa Moe of The Irrawaddy, and Mr Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) joined Ms Moe Thuzar, Co-coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme, to discuss and share their assessments of the immediate post-election scenario and the future political (and electoral) landscape.
There seemed to be wide acknowledgement that the advance voting measure facilitated voting for many eligible voters above the age of 60, as well as those who might otherwise have not made their way (or been able to do so) to the polling station on Election Day. Panellists noted that this measure probably helped to boost the number of voters in 2020 compared to 2015.
Voters’ commitment to the democratic process – in panellists’ view – was also high, as many people queued to cast their vote amidst concerns over a possible infection spike. This commitment was marred, however, by early celebrations of an NLD victory that brought revellers into close contact with no heed to safe-distancing.
The UEC or Union Election Commission’s initial estimates that voter turn-out in 2020 (between 70-80%) was higher than the 69.7% in 2015 also showed that predictions or concerns about a lower voter turn-out over Covid-19 did not materialise. PACE’s pre-election poll had reported in October that that less than 50% of respondents had confirmed they would “definitely vote” but the combined percentage of “definitely vote” and “probably vote” was about 70%. A third of the respondents in the PACE survey had also expressed Covid-19 as a potential barrier to voting.
Some panellists noted that voter sentiments in 2020 were comparable to those in the 1990 election. This continuing aspiration for democracy might help explain the higher turnout in 2020 (compared to 2015). People’s political thought in Myanmar did not seem to have changed much in the three decades since 1990, in terms of the aspirations for democracy and rejection of military rule.
Higher number of votes for NLD
Journalists and commentators’ predictions were largely that the NLD might win big (if not as big as in 2015), i.e. about 70% of seats in the Hluttaw. Actual numbers showed an 82% win for the NLD. The Irrawaddy had expected the USDP to win up to 5 or 6% of seats, and, if ‘very lucky’, a possible 10%. The 2020 vote outcome showed a 6.4%. share of the seats for the USDP. Ethnic political party wins across 1990, 2015 and 2020 elections showed a 12% share of seats across the country.
In 2020, people in Myanmar could track the vote count in real time via interactive result dashboards online, and live feeds of various polling stations across the country. The public was thus kept abreast of the NLD’s large commanding lead in the polls ahead of the UEC’s official confirmation of results.
Ethnic political parties’ performance
Many analysts, politicians and journalists had predicted that the NLD would lose to ethnic parties in the ethnic areas. That was proved wrong as the NLD won majority seats in most of the ethnic states except Rakhine State. In Chin State, Kayin State, and even in the northernmost (remote) townships in Kachin State, almost all votes were for the NLD.
Soul-searching among ethnic political parties had recently started, but given the NLD wins in several ethnic areas, panellists recommended further study on how ethnic minority groups vote heterogeneously rather than along strict ethnic lines.
Demographic changes and internal movements in and across Myanmar provided additional indicators that not all votes cast in an ethnic area would be from ethnic nationalities. In actual fact, many ethnic nationalities make up the populations of Myanmar’s states and regions.
Party mergers in several ethnic states had not brought the expected success in the 2020 polls, and provided an instructive experience for the various ethnic political parties. This and the reality that ethnic nationalities reside all across Myanmar should inform future strategies of the ethnic political parties, as well as the ruling party, on addressing ethnic needs and concerns. If anything, the 2020 vote had shown that people still tended to turn to the NLD as the “only party which can bring about the democratic federal union”.
In this context, the recent “olive branch” tendered to ethnic armed groups in the context of continuing the peace negotiations was a welcome move. However, panellists observed that civil-military relations would still take precedence in the national reconciliation stakes.
Many interpretations of the overwhelming vote for the NLD suggested that voters did not wish for any further enlargement – implicit or explicit – of the military’s role in politics. The humiliating defeat of many political parties, foremost the USDP, in the 2020 polls showed that political parties that showed some favourable consideration of working with the military figured low in voters’ consideration.
Nevertheless, civil-military relations, especially interactions between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, would (and should) continue to be part of the NLD’s national reconciliation priority. During the NLD’s first term, there seemed to be a lack of opportunities or political will (on either side) to remain engaged in a constructive dialogue to solve the constitutional amendment issues.
The military continues to be a key political stakeholder in Myanmar, and in the present scenario, it would be up to the Commander-in-Chief to make the next move. That the Commander-in-Chief would be retiring from active military service in the coming year, and his interest in a political role, might complicate the run-up to 2025.
The UEC’s task to ensure fair and smoothly-run elections came under greater scrutiny from civil society and opposition political parties in 2020. Since the announcement of the election date, the UEC was criticised over its lack of communication and errors in voter roll preparations. Stakeholders in the electoral process – including the military and opposition political parties – had also expressed concern over the UEC’s capacity to manage election administration and logistics, and prevent potential election violence. The UEC’s censorship of political parties’ televised speeches, and the flip-flops in cancellation of voting in several ethnic areas due to security provoked more critical comment. In this context, the commitment of polling station officials – many of whom were volunteers – to ensure a smooth voting process and transparency in the initial vote counts, was commendable.
The UEC’s attention would now be occupied with the disputes over vote counts raised not just by the USDP, but also by some ethnic political parties for their respective constituencies.
Covid-19 impact on elections
The Covid-19 pandemic presented an unprecedented and important factor affecting the election performance of several political parties. Smaller political parties and/or those with less resources (technical, financial, human) faced considerable challenges in communicating and discussing campaign priorities with constituents, while the incumbent could communicate its political messages via multiple media platforms. Censorship of some political parties’ televised broadcasts also affected more effective communication of their party manifestos nationwide, as television still remained the top source of information across the country. Additionally, online campaigning was not an option or choice in most parts of the country (outside main urban areas). The use of Facebook for online campaigning was more effective as a ‘accelerator’ for the established larger parties but not so for introducing newer and less well-known parties and candidates.
Panellists also discussed some issues/concerns in the post-election landscape that emerged from or had been shaped by the election outcome, including questions raised from the audience.
- Addressing gaps between the current legal framework and the realities of the changing political environment required review and reform of the legal framework and the electoral process (including existing provisions for local elections).
- It would also be useful to review the current electoral system (and process) in the context of the 2008 Constitution, and revisit earlier moves for electoral reform. The tendency to vote for (or ensure) a supermajority of one large political party to counter or balance the entrenched presence of military representatives in the legislature arose from the constraints of the 2008 Constitution. This constraint and the current situation do not seem to present voters with any other choice than the NLD in Myanmar’s first-past-the-post system.
- The NLD’s second landslide victory had given the ruling party a very strong mandate. This returned mandate constituted a second (or continued) chance to address people’s socio-political aspirations and economic well-being, rather than a wholesale endorsement of the past five years.
- It was important that the NLD start preparing early for 2025, taking into account the change of leadership in the Tatmadaw, and building on/expanding its current election strategy of listening to the people and working the ground.
- An important part of “working the ground” would also include engaging in dialogue with the ethnic parties who won in Shan State and Rakhine State, on programmes and policies in those ethnic areas.
- The uncertainty of opinion or perception polls constituted a reminder that capturing the sentiments of a diverse country – with lingering legacy issues – such as Myanmar, was a work-in-progress. The Asia Barometer Survey, the Asia Foundation’s City Life Surveys and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) surveys had previously found that there was high public trust for the incumbent.
Panellists were in broad agreement that analysts, journalists and pollsters could all benefit from the experience of the 2020 vote on interpreting or communicating uncertainties, perceptions and opinions of Myanmar’s nascent democracy.
The webinar attracted the interest of 119 attendees.