If Myanmar’s election demonstrates reasonable transparency and fair process, it would go down in history as the first free and fair one in the country in more than two decades, says Dr Rahul Mishra.
In what may be hailed as a milestone, Myanmar, which was the second poorest country in Asia after Afghanistan, and voted the world's second most corrupt after Somalia in 2011, with one of the highest shares in the world of narcotics production and minimal level of education just five years back, where decades of military rule and suppression had made the country a pariah State, is witnessing nationwide general elections today.
Unlike Thailand, its neighbour in Southeast Asia, the military seems to be ready to share power with the civilian authorities, though only reluctantly.
Burma, as it has been called by the supporters of democracy who never accepted its modern name Myanmar, still falls in the league of Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia on the Human Rights Index, and education and literacy levels. Visibly, barring the exception of Rohingyas, on which surprisingly even Aung San Suu Kyi seemed to be in tune with majority of Myanmar, the elections are focused on the due process of law (as if there is a rulebook to conduct the election in Myanmar), and the international standards of conducting the election are being discussed, if not followed.
While there still are doubts whether the elections will be free and fair, chances are high that this time round the situation will be different. If the election demonstrates reasonable transparency and fair process, it would go down in history as the first free and fair election in the country in more than two decades.
In 1990, the military junta had refused to accept the electoral verdict, which was in favour of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy. Later on, Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for almost two decades. Suu Kyi and her party NLD did not participate in the 2010 elections, calling it unfair and rigged. However, this time the NLD is in for the elections, thereby lending much-needed sanctity to the process.
The 2015 election is critically important for the country where 30 million eligible voters would determine the fate of around 6,000 candidates from more than 90 political parties contesting for 1,142 seats at the national and state levels put together.
While political pundits and psephologists have predicted that Suu Kyi’s NLD would get the highest number of seats, only time will tell who will actually ‘win’ the election.
Clearly, with the military holding 25 percent seats, and with its retired personnel contesting from the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party), it seems highly likely that the military will have a major say in the country’s political future. The big change in favour of the USDP is that Monk Wirathu has supported it.
Monk Wirathu’s support is critically important for the USDP. He has termed the NLD a Muslim party in an attempt to alienate them from the masses, but Suu Kyi’s own stand on Muslims has not been consistently strong despite leaders such as U Win Htein from Meiktila openly opposing riots.
Notwithstanding the NLD’s fumbling in supporting Rohingyas (called Bengalis in Myanmar), in all likelihood, chances are that minority Muslims would not be optimally represented in the national and state assemblies.
The major ethnic minorities are also likely to have a strong position, especially in determining the fate of national ceasefire and reconciliation in future. The advantage the ethnic minorities have is that in areas such as Mon they are in a strong position, and might bag a substantial number of seats.
For Suu Kyi, the political future is still shrouded in mystery since she cannot become the president under the 2008 constitutional provisions. If her recent statement is any clue, she seems to be doing some soul-searching and has indicated that she would be even bigger than the next president if the NLD comes to power.
This reminds one of India’s Congress party where Sonia Gandhi did run the UPA government by proxy with Dr Manmohan Singh as prime minister. A similar situation in Myanmar might prove disastrous, considering that political institutions are not strong enough.
Nevertheless, it is still too early to predict what would emerge from the elections, when we will have the indications of Myanmar’s political future. Election of president will take more time as it is not a direct one, and only the elected representatives would decide it.
Clearly, ideals of democracy and calculations of party politics have shaped the ground realities now, and a lot depends on the smooth conduct of free and fair democratic elections.
In essence, one may say that so far progress on the democratic front is reasonably good, but the litmus test for the government, people and country is the manner in which the elections are held.
Numerous challenges lie ahead, including fears of communal clashes and rioting as President Thein Sein himself admitted. Moreover, apprehensions of rigging and electoral mismanagement pose structural challenges.
Whatever the outcome, it seems that in Myanmar, the political discourse is changing. It is not just about the junta anymore, it is about many more actors and stakeholders.
Enigma as it has been, if Myanmar is able to sail through this phase, it will be a landmark event for the country.
Image: Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi walks in front of a polling station as she visits poling stations at her constituency Kawhmu on November 8, 2015. Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters.
Dr Rahul Mishra is Asia Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington DC, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org