Briefing / Asia 3 minutes

The Myanmar Elections

Twenty years ago today, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party swept Myanmar’s elections, but the army refused to allow the results to be implemented. Later this year Myanmar will vote again in a process certain to be seriously flawed but whose results and the constitution to be brought into force will redefine the political landscape, influencing opportunities to push for long-overdue social, economic and political reforms.

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Myanmar will shortly hold its first elections in twenty years. Given the restrictive provisions of the 2010 Political Parties Registration Law that bar anyone serving a prison term from membership in a political party, many imprisoned dissidents will be excluded from the process, unless they are released in the near future. Aung San Suu Kyi – whose suspended sentence and house arrest possibly exclude her also – has condemned the legislation, and her National League for Democracy (NLD) has decided not to participate and has, therefore, lost its status as a legally-registered party. There has rightly been much international criticism of the new constitution and of the fact that the elections will not be inclusive, but the political and generational shift that they will bring about may represent the best opportunity in a generation to influence the future direction of the country.

The balloting will take place in the framework of the new constitution, adopted under highly questionable circumstances in 2008. That document, which will come into force following the elections, will entrench the military’s power. It gives the institution significant autonomy, as well as considerable political influence, by reserving a quarter of the seats in national and regional legislatures for it and creating a powerful new national defence and security council controlled by the commander-in-chief, who also receives control of key security ministries and other extraordinary powers.

It seems very likely that the vote will go ahead without any moves by the regime to address concerns. At the same time, the problematic nature of the process should not lead observers to underestimate its significance. The elections and the constitution they will bring into force will define the political landscape for years to come and will influence what opportunities there are to push for long-overdue social, economic and political reforms in Myanmar. An understanding of the political dynamics they will create is, therefore, vital.

It is clear that the top leaders, Generals Than Shwe and Maung Aye, will step aside after the elections, making way for a younger generation of military officers. Although the old guard may continue to wield significant influence behind the scenes, the reins of power will be in new hands, and the new political structures make it unlikely that any single individual will be able to dominate decision-making in the way that Than Shwe has in recent years. Myanmar has been under military rule for half a century. The attempts by the regime to introduce a more civilian and plural character to governance, however tentative and flawed they may be, should be critiqued but not dismissed.

These were the messages of Crisis Group’s August 2009 report, Myanmar: Towards the Elections, and they continue to be valid. This briefing updates recent developments, including an analysis of the electoral legislation issued in March. It provides a timeline for the implementation of the new constitutional structures after election day, including the formation and initial functioning of the new legislatures. It also examines the critical question of the impact on the ethnic conflict and concludes that renewed fighting in areas where ceasefires currently hold should be of concern but remains on balance unlikely. A brief assessment of the recent mass sell-off of public assets, which was driven in part by the uncertainty of post-election rent-seeking opportunities, suggests that this could have greater impact on the political economy than the elections themselves, by providing significant off-budget resources that will help the army take advantage of the considerable autonomy and political influence written into the constitution for it.

The electoral legislation is in most respects almost identical to the laws governing the 1990 poll, including provisions that led to a broadly fair count. The most significant departures are highly restrictive provisions in the Political Parties Registration Law. This suggests strongly that, as in 1990, the elections will be characterised by a campaigning period that is highly controlled and far from free, but that the voting on election day may well be relatively fair. Such a scenario presents important challenges, as well as opportunities, to domestic stakeholders and to the international community.

Jakarta/Brussels, 27 May 2010

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