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The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications
The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Report 238 / Asia

Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Even as Myanmar’s democratic transition continues apace, ethnic violence in Rakhine State represents a threat to national stability. It demands decisive moral leadership from all the country’s leaders as they strive to find long-term solutions to the many challenges that lie ahead, including longstanding discrimination of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities.

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Executive Summary

Myanmar’s leaders continue to demonstrate that they have the political will and the vision to move the country decisively away from its authoritarian past, but the road to democracy is proving hard. President Thein Sein has declared the changes irreversible and worked to build a durable partnership with the opposition. While the process remains incomplete, political prisoners have been released, blacklists trimmed, freedom of assembly laws implemented, and media censorship abolished. But widespread ethnic violence in Rakhine State, targeting principally the Rohingya Muslim minority, has cast a dark cloud over the reform process and any further rupturing of intercommunal relations could threaten national stability. Elsewhere, social tensions are rising as more freedom allows local conflicts to resurface. A ceasefire in Kachin State remains elusive. Political leaders have conflicting views about how power should be shared under the constitution as well as after the 2015 election. Moral leadership is required now to calm tensions and new compromises will be needed if divisive confrontation is to be avoided.

The president has moved to consolidate his authority with his first cabinet reshuffle. Ministers regarded as conservative or underperforming were moved aside and many new deputy ministers appointed. There are now more technocrats in these positions, and the country has its first female minister. The president also brought his most trusted cabinet members into his office, creating a group of “super-ministers” with authority over broad areas of government – a move perhaps partially motivated by a desire to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the legislature. A dispute over a controversial ruling by the presidentially-appointed Constitutional Tribunal led to impeachment proceedings and the resignation of the tribunal members, highlighting both the power of the legislature, and the risks to a political structure in transition as new institutions test the boundaries of their authority.

The transition has been remarkable for its speed and the apparent lack of any major internal resistance, including from the military. It will inevitably face enormous challenges. The ongoing intercommunal strife in Rakhine State is of grave concern, and there is the potential for similar violence elsewhere, as nationalism and ethno-nationalism rise and old prejudices resurface. The difficulty in reaching a ceasefire in Kachin State underlines the complexity of forging a sustainable peace with ethnic armed groups. There are also rising grassroots tensions over land grabbing and abuses by local authorities, and environmental and social concerns over foreign-backed infrastructure and mining projects. In a context of rising popular expectations, serious unaddressed grievances from the past, and new-found freedom to organise and demonstrate, there is potential for the emergence of more radical and confrontational social movements. This will represent a major test for the government and security services as they seek to maintain law and order without rekindling memories of the recent authoritarian past.

A key factor in determining the success of Myanmar’s transition will be macro-political stability. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will compete for seats across the country for the first time since the abortive 1990 elections. Assuming these polls are free and fair, they will herald a radical shift in the balance of power away from the old dispensation. But an NLD landslide may not be in the best interests of the party or the country, as it would risk marginalising three important constituencies: the old political elite, the ethnic political parties and the non-NLD democratic forces. If the post-2015 legislatures fail to represent the true political and ethnic diversity of the country, tensions are likely to increase and fuel instability.

The main challenge the NLD faces is not to win the election, but to promote inclusiveness and reconciliation. It has a number of options to achieve this. It could support a more proportional election system that would create more representative legislatures, by removing the current “winner-takes-all” distortion. Alternatively, it could form an alliance with other parties, particularly ethnic parties, agreeing not to compete against them in certain constituencies. Finally, it could support an interim “national unity” candidate for the post-2015 presidency. This would reassure the old guard, easing the transition to an NLD-dominated political system. Critically, this option could also build support for the constitutional change required to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to become president at a future date, a change that is unlikely prior to 2015 given the opposition of the military bloc, which has a veto over any amendment. Pursuing any of these paths will require that the NLD make sacrifices and put the national interest above party-political considerations. With a national leader of the calibre of Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm, it can certainly rise to this challenge.

Jakarta/Brussels, 12 November 2012

NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for Myanmar's first parliament meeting after the November 8 general elections, at the Lower House of Parliament in Naypyitaw, 16 November 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Briefing 147 / Asia

The Myanmar Elections: Results and Implications

Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide electoral victory was a historic success for Myanmar. To meet the high expectations that resulted, the country’s new leaders will need to balance carefully ties with China with those with the West, credibly lead a fragile peace process and above all handle wisely their relations with a still-powerful army.

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I. Overview

The 8 November elections were a major waypoint in Myanmar’s transition from authoritarian rule. Holding a peaceful, orderly vote in a context of little experience of electoral democracy, deep political fissures and ongoing armed conflict in several areas was a major achievement for all political actors, the election commission and the country as a whole. The victorious National League for Democracy (NLD) needs to use the four-month transitional period before it takes power at the end of March 2016 wisely, identifying key appointees early so that they have as much time as possible to prepare for the substantial challenges ahead.

Its landslide victory, with almost 80 per cent of the elected seats, means Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will have an outright majority in both legislative chambers, even after the 25 per cent of unelected seats held by the armed forces is taken into account. This will give it control of law-making and the power to choose the president – a position that the constitution bars Suu Kyi from taking herself. The incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a crushing defeat, as did most parties representing minority ethnic groups.

The vote represents a huge popular mandate for Aung San Suu Kyi and comes with equally high expectations that she and the NLD will deliver the needed political and economic changes. It will not be easy to meet those expectations. First, Suu Kyi will have to build a constructive working relationship with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. The military retains considerable executive power, with control of the defence, home affairs and border affairs ministries. Success in everything from the peace process to police reform and further political liberalisation will depend on the cooperation of the armed forces. With longstanding mutual suspicions, that relationship could easily get off to a bad start, particularly if Suu Kyi chooses a proxy president without the credibility and stature required for the top job, as she has suggested she would.

Beyond this, the NLD will want to demonstrate that it can meet the expectations of the people by bringing tangible changes to their lives. It can tap into enormous domestic and international goodwill and support, but its limited experience of government, a shallow pool of skilled technocrats and the difficulty of reforming key institutions all constrain how much can be achieved quickly. This is particularly important given that the party has done very little policy development work to date.

It also may prove difficult for the new administration to focus on producing positive changes, given the range of problems the country faces, any of which have the potential to spawn crises. Serious armed clashes continue in Shan and Kachin states, threatening to undermine a fragile peace process. There are signs of macro-economic turbulence, with weak policy tools available to mitigate it. And the situation in Rakhine state, where most Muslim Rohingya were disenfranchised, is intractable and potentially volatile; any moves the NLD government makes on this issue will come under particular nationalist scrutiny.

There will also be international relations challenges. Suu Kyi and the NLD will need deft diplomatic skills to steer Myanmar’s continuing re-engagement with the West, while maintaining good relations with a more assertive China concerned that its interests are being harmed. They will have to be particularly adroit, given perceptions that they have an inherent pro-Western bias. Western countries must do their part to help make this rebalancing succeed. They have an important role to play in supporting positive change in Myanmar but need to be cognizant of domestic and regional sensitivities involved.

Yangon/Brussels, 9 December 2015