YANGON – Myanmar’s military-aligned Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) has rejected its crushing defeat and called for a military-managed re-run of the November 8 elections, an unexpected challenge that raises concerns for political stability.
USDP leader Than Htay accused the Union Election Commission (UEC) of “unfair” bias towards the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and accused the party’s members of bribing voters. He said the party had instructed candidates not to sign off on their poll losses.
He also urged supporters to report electoral fraud to the party to help it build its case.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s governing NLD party has said it has already bagged two-thirds of elected seats in the national parliament, clearing the way for it to choose the next president and form the next administration.
Vote-counting is ongoing in some constituencies, with the UEC saying at a November 11 press conference that official results may take up to a week to tally.
Opposition party leaders including Thet Thet Khine of the People’s Pioneer Party and prominent 1988 uprising activist Ko Ko Gyi of the People’s Party have already conceded defeat. Neither party is on course to secure any seats.
Neither top brass generals nor other opposition party leaders have come out to support Than Htay’s call for another vote. Experts and analysts see the USDP’s move as the latest in a series of actions aimed at discrediting the elections rather than a military-backed plot to overthrow the NLD victors.
That said, military commander- in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing publicly trashed the government’s management of the electoral process days ahead of the vote, warning that poor handing had created “public doubts” on whether the polls would be free and fair.
After casting his ballot on Sunday, the military leader told reporters he would accept the results.
Unless Myanmar’s generals are keen for a coup, a scenario which few if any analysts currently see as likely, then it is likely only a matter of time before Than Htay is forced to climbdown and his already-shattered party forced to face the democratic reality of his party’s unpopularity.
Independent assessments of the election’s voting operations indicate that they were held free and fair and with a higher than expected turnout amid a Covid-19 outbreak.
Almost 20% of townships in the country remain under stay-at-home orders, making movement between states and regions difficult due to the health restrictions. On polling day, reports showed long queues of mask-wearing people formed outside polling stations across Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon and the northern capital Mandalay.
In front of a polling booth in semi-rural Thanlyin township on the outskirts of Yangon, a queue of young and middle-aged voters, some with jeans and others Burmese longyi, assembled at dawn to cast their votes.
The voting queue was a mixture of average villagers and wealthy residents in the nearby Star City residential estate, developed by conglomerate Yoma Group led by Sino-Burmese tycoon Serge Pun. All voters there wore masks and some donned protective gear.
“I was impressed with what I observed during the elections. Election officials were dedicated and worked hard throughout the day to ensure that the processes were smooth and everyone was safe,” said an Asian diplomat who observed the polls. “The voters were also patiently queuing in the hot weather to cast their votes at the polling stations.”
The mood was markedly different from the 2015 historic elections, the first largely-free contest in half a century that marked the transition from quasi-military to quasi-democratic rule. Then, the public rushed out to support NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi amid waves of jubilation and celebration.
Because of Covid-19 health protocols, restaurants and tea shops across the commercial capital were shut for this year’s election. In the central business district outside Sule-Shangrila Hotel, normally the busiest street in the country, there were only a few cars and pedestrians by the time the polls closed at 4 pm.
Voting operations were largely orderly and transparent, with foreign and domestic election observers and journalists given mostly open access. The elderly were given the choice to vote in advance in their residences out of virus concerns, with Suu Kyi and her president Win Myint opting for the arrangement.
Myanmar’s largest election monitor, the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, the Bangkok-based Thailand-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) and the US-based Carter Center all noted that polling day proceeded mostly peacefully and without major irregularities.
“The election administration has demonstrated resilience in adjusting to the challenges posed by Covid-19,” said the Atlanta-based Carter Center in a November 10 statement. “The efforts of the Union Election Commission [UEC] and Ministry of Health and Sports to overcome the challenges presented by Covid-19 are commendable.”
Those stamps of international and local monitor group approval will give a boost to the election’s credibility following a highly contentious pre-election period.
The two-month official campaign period starting in September was marked by Covid-19 prohibitions on mass rallies and restrictions on the movement of vehicles and people.
The UEC, meanwhile, faced broad and heavy criticism for its censorship of opposition party broadcasts in state media and, in particular, for its opaquely-made decision to cancel voting entirely in some conflict areas, a move that appears to have favored the ruling party.
Voting in more than half the polling stations originally planned in conflict-affected Rakhine state was called off on security grounds. The move robbed the Arakan National Party, currently the third biggest party in national parliament, of all its safe seats. ANP lawmakers attacked the cancellations, announced a month before the polls, as politically motivated.
The cancellations resulted in now 22 vacant seats in the national legislature and a total of 32 local seats overall – 20 in Rakhine and 12 in Shan state parliaments. An estimated 1.4 million voters were disenfranchised by the cancellations, including up to one million in Rakhine state alone.
Election monitors and Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby, have said Myanmar’s elections are fundamentally flawed because of seats reserved for military candidates in elected legislatures, inequality of the vote across constituencies and undue restrictions on the presidency’s criteria, among others.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, who lost the right to vote prior to the 2015 elections, remain disenfranchised.
Still, a majority of voters came out to cast their ballots in support of Suu Kyi and her NLD. While some conceded that the NLD’s record was disappointing, the overwhelming majority pledged to support the incumbent party, not least to keep the military from retaking power.
Under the 2008 Constitution written by the junta, the military is authorized to appoint 25% of lawmakers in parliament and has control over three key ministries. The USDP, the military’s proxy party that governed from 2011-16, only needed to secure at most 25% of lawmakers to choose the head of state.
For the Myanmar population, memories of the country’s social injustice, entrenched poverty and suffering under decades of authoritarian and abusive military regimes are still fresh. In that era, the junta evicted farmers from their lands at will and financed infrastructure construction through forced donations from communities.
Those memories have been expressed again with the USDP’s bruising performance at the polls.