On October 30, 2015, days before the Myanmar elections which are expected to see the opposition make major gains, a four-minute video was posted on President Thein Sein’s Facebook page. The video pointed to the possibility of bloodshed and chaos akin to the Arab Spring aftermath if the ruling army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) does not retain power in the November 8 polls. The video carried an oblique message from the USDP, which portrays itself as the guardian of Myanmar’s peace and progress, that “democratisation can be implemented only when peace prevails”.
A few days later there was a reference to the other end of the possible outcomes of the November 8 elections, when Aung San Suu Kyi said at a media conference that if her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), wins the historic polls she will take a post “above the president” to circumvent a constitutional ban on her holding the presidency. This article discusses Myanmar’s forthcoming elections.
The parliamentary elections
On July 8, 2015, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) had announced that elections to the parliament will be held on November 8. The UEC, established under the 2008 constitution as a permanent institution, is responsible for holding, supervising and conducting administrative functions concerning elections in Myanmar. It is staffed with a chairman and at least five commissioners, all of whom are appointed by the president. Myanmar uses the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system where representatives are chosen from single-member constituencies.
Myanmar’s parliament, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, comprises of two houses; Amoytha Hluttaw, the upper house, and Pyithu Hluttaw, the lower house. In addition, Myanmarese voters on election day will elect representatives to state and region assemblies. A total of 1,171 representatives will be elected, some to parliament and some to the state and region assemblies.
Representation in the upper house is related to Myanmar’s 14 states and regions. In the upcoming elections these states and regions will elect 12 representatives each, or 168 of the total 224 representatives in the upper house. In the case of the lower house there are 440 representatives of who 330 will be elected; one each from the 330 townships in Myanmar.
As per Myanmar’s constitution, the Commander-in-Chief of the defence services will appoint from the military 25 percent of the representatives to the seats in the upper and lower house. This amounts to 56 members to the upper house and 110 members to the lower house.
The ‘width and depth’ of these elections underlines their significance. The November elections will be the largest election held in the history of Myanmar with 6,189 candidates, 93 political parties and 23 million registered voters in the country and abroad. Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD have a task on their hands for the 75 percent parliament seats up for grabs.
New voting procedures
The UEC has introduced a number of new polling procedures for the 2015 elections. These include use of a stamp by voters to mark their ballots, integrity measures such as tamper-evident pull through ballot box seals which are individually numbered, and the use of indelible ink to mark voters’ fingers. Electoral rolls were digitised for the first time. Pilot projects were conducted in several constituencies. Election police comprising local volunteers will be deployed to enhance security at the polling stations. These election volunteers will receive a payment of $3 as incentive.
Domestic and international observers will be allowed in the polling stations and the names of witnesses observing the counting process will be recorded on the reverse of the results form; and results displayed at each polling station after ballots have been counted. Thirteen domestic organisations are sending 10,000 election observers. More than 500 observers are being sent from 21 countries to monitor the election. Five prominent international organisations are also observing the election on a long-term basis. Hence the confidence that the elections will be free and fair.
Election of the president
Voters in Myanmar do not directly elect the president who will be elected by representatives of both houses of parliament through the formation of a presidential electoral college following the elections. The presidential electoral college comprises of three groups of representatives; upper house, lower house and appointed military representatives. Each group will nominate a single candidate for the presidency. The three candidates can be chosen from elected and appointed representatives to parliament, or be any person who is not a Member of Parliament and meets eligibility criteria established under Article 59 of the 2008 Constitution.
Each Member of Parliament from both houses will cast a single vote for his or her preferred presidential candidate. The candidate with the most votes will become the president, and the other two candidates will become vice presidents. The process is time consuming and analysts expect the new president to be in by early to mid-2016.
Under Article 59, the immediate family members of candidates who qualify must be citizens and not hold foreign citizenship, which is the clause that effectively bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her children hold British citizenship as did her late spouse.
In 1990, the NLD had won 392 of the 492 available seats, taking 52.5% of the national vote. And 22 years later in 2012, the NLD claimed 43 of the 45 seats on offer, accruing about 66% of the available votes. But these seats were in Burman-dominated areas where NLD has a traditionally strong following. However, the current elections are national elections and for the NLD key battleground for the campaign is going to be in the minority ethnic states where 207 seats (31%) will be contested. Making the NLD’s position difficult is the anti-Muslim tag it has managed to acquire in the run up to the elections. Hence even with a sizeable majority NLD will have to strike deals with other parties to get its presidential candidate elected.
Myanmar’s transition from military rule to democracy is far from complete and, despite progress since 2011, its success to date remains fragile. More work is needed to consolidate democracy, improve governance, equity, and importantly, the national economy. To that end the 2015 parliamentary elections are a crucial step forward.