CHIANG MAI – Myanmar’s November 8 elections exceeded all expectations with a massive margin of victory for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
While final results may not be known for several days, clear patterns of an NLD landslide, perhaps even bigger than the stunning victory of 2015, are apparent.
The NLD was widely expected to win but it turned into a nationwide thrashing of its opponents, even under the Covid-19 restrictions achieved an incredible voter turnout of 85%.
The local People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) claimed in its preliminary elections observation report that, “Overall, the election-day process was peaceful, and no major incidents were recorded”, and that the number of disputes over discrepancies was relatively low.
This vindicates the ground-level polling station capacity of the electoral process, in many cases schoolteachers who made the process smooth even with Covid-19 distancing and PPE restrictions.
Yet at a higher level, the performance of the Union Elections Commission (UEC) was woefully inept, with haphazard decision-making and a lack of transparency exacerbated by constant berating from State Counsellor Suu Kyi, whose decision it ultimately was to go ahead with the election during a raging pandemic.
Suu Kyi affected magnanimity in a speech a day after the election, claiming not to have been involved directly in election planning when in fact her imperious oversight was for months tantamount to meddling.
“We now have two challenges: One is to conduct the elections successfully, and the other is to overcome the Covid challenge successfully,” she said before the polls. “When we look at these two, we have overcome the first one; to overcome the other one successfully, we will need your (the people’s) participation and support.”
Suu Kyi knows full well that this election landslide delivered one winner and a diverse host of losers. There may well be a significant loss of lives of many voters and Myanmar’s public health care system if November 8 becomes a series of coronavirus super-spreader events.
Covid-19 cases surged just as the campaign was gearing up in September. The day after the elections, Myanmar had recorded 61,975 total cases with 1,437 deaths, although limited testing capacity likely obscures the real figures. People in quarantine were not permitted to vote.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), closely linked to the military, suffered an almost complete collapse. The chair of the party, Than Htay, narrowly won his seat in Zeyathiri Township in Naypyidaw, despite his blatantly racist campaigning.
“You can check if my wife and children are running shady businesses or if they’ve taken any liberties, what bloodline they have, if there are any Muslims or Chinese,” he was widely reported as saying at a campaign rally.
Than Htay will spend the next five years with much fewer parliamentary colleagues and almost zero influence for his party. In cheaply churlish fashion, some USDP party members are refusing to sign the Form 19 voting reports as all contesting political parties are required to, slowing down results announcements.
A number of newer nationwide parties out of the 91 that contested the polls, such as the Union Betterment Party (UBP) led by former general and Suu Kyi ally Thura Shwe Mann, and the People’s Party (PP) run by former prominent political prisoner U Ko Ko Gyi, failed to make much of an impression on the electorate.
The People’s Pioneer Party (PPP) led by Daw Thet Thet Khine, a vocal arch-nemesis of Suu Kyi, came in third in the seat of Mayangon Township, gaining only 7,498 seats to the NLD candidate’s 89,548.
The most spectacular fall was undoubtedly the disbarring of the United Democratic Party (UDP) which had selected over 1,000 candidates nationwide, after its founder and party head Michael Kyaw Myint was arrested on outstanding charges of escaping from prison in the 1990s.
The UDP case is a worrying indicator that dirty money is creeping into Myanmar’s elections after decades of direct military rule, pushing democratic politics in a systemically corrupt Southeast Asian pattern of widespread vote-buying.
Ethnic political parties did not fare well either, with an almost a complete collapse of gains in Chin, Kayin and Kachin states, and modest but still sound results, so far, in Shan and Mon States.
For the last two years, some pundits, political party leaders and others claimed that ethnic party leaders would perform so well a diminished NLD would have to form a coalition government, making ethnic parties the effective kingmakers.
This was a ridiculous forecast for varied reasons, more aspiration than reality, and now relegated to the growing pile of spurious forecasts and theories that infuse many elections.
Many statements from the United States, European Union and UN rightly pointed out the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, but there were more denied the right to vote, including 1.6 million people in canceled townships in Rakhine, Shan, Kachin and Kayin states.
Of an estimated four million or more Myanmar people living overseas, the majority as migrant workers in Thailand, only just over 100,000 worldwide cast votes, a slight improvement on 2015 when only 30,000 voted.
Another loser was the reemergence from a year on the run of firebrand Buddhist monk U Wirathu. Like a third-rate vaudeville act staging a lame comeback, Wirathu handed himself in to police to face outstanding charges of defaming religion, an overt attempt to inject racist and anti-NLD narratives into the elections.
His return sparked brief media attention, a few supporters brandishing pre-arranged signs (in English) vowing to defend race and religion, and then a return to irrelevance like the unhinged minor celebrity racist he is.
It is far too trite to claim these elections were a referendum on the NLD’s rule, and if it was it would return a resounding yes for continued mendacity and idolatry.
Another way to look at the landslide is unlike 2015, when the NLD were untested in government, five years later it resulted in the continuation of a democratically endorsed populist autocracy. As the electoral results make clear, brand “Mother Suu” has undisputed market dominance in Myanmar.
The less than impressive performance of the NLD’s first term, which achieved little progress in achieving peace, development and legal and constitutional reform, was dogged by the NLD’s born-to-rule attitude, a sense of entitlement after decades of military harassment.
Many NLD MPs were unimpressive mediocrities, installed more for obedience than aptitude, and the party seemed to resurrect the Socialist era credo of “loyal man first, good man second.” If the party doesn’t seriously address its style of governance, the next five years could be another missed opportunity to transform Myanmar.
As such, the NLD’s campaign of corrosion of fundamental freedoms is expected to continue against the media, civil society, ethnic communities and voices of dissent, and for a further slide into a one-party state mentality.
The quality of democracy may be the main loser in these elections if the NLD refuses to transform a clear mandate into a genuinely democratic system responsive to a diverse range of interests and needs.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on peace, conflict and human rights issues in Myanmar