A soldier stands guard as troops arrive at a Hindu temple in Yangon on February 2, 2021, as Myanmar's generals appeared in firm control a day after a surgical coup that saw elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi detained. Photo: AFP/Stringer

CHIANG MAI – A day after the military takeover in Myanmar, the coup-maker generals have not provided any new credible evidence to support their claim that the November 2020 election won by the now overthrown National League for Democracy (NLD) was rigged or fraudulent.

But as local and international condemnation mounts against the detention of elected politicians, suspension of parliament and imposition of emergency rule, the generals are likely to stick to the line that their putsch ultimately supports rather than undermines electoral democracy.     

That argument, of course, contradicts the assessment of international observers, including the Carter Center, Asian Network for Free Elections and European Union’s Election Observation Mission, all of which judged last November’s elections as mainly free and fair.

It will be equally difficult for the generals to convince coup critics that “national solidarity” was breaking down, as the military has claimed in justifying its coup. The only signs of any chaos were noisy, military-organized demonstrations that failed to provoke countermoves from the general public.

But there is another argument where the generals may be more convincing — and where they may even garner a measure of support at home. Myanmar currently has a single-member plurality voting system according to which people cast their votes for a contender of their choice, and the candidate in each constituency that receives the most votes wins irrespective of the vote share.

The NLD, the party that won by landslides in 2015 and 2020, has benefited from that system because no other party could muster as many votes and it won sometimes by only a few hundred votes in some constituencies.

Supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party wave flags in front of the party’s office in Mandalay on November 8, 2020, as ballots for the parliamentary elections were being counted. Photo: AFP/Ye Naing Ye

The loser was mainly the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in central Myanmar and local parties in the ethnic states. If Myanmar had had proportional representation in the central and local assemblies, the number of MPs allotted to each party would have been very different and cut into the NLD’s overwhelming landslide win.

Myanmar’s election commission may have detailed vote counts for 2015 and 2020, as those are not to be found in official reports.

According to a report published by the International Crisis Group after the 2015 election and based on a compilation of various data published by the election commission, the NLD won 57% of the popular vote and the USDP 28% — but, at that time, the NLD took 390 of the popularly elected seats in the bicameral parliament. The USDP was allocated a paltry 41 seats.

Although no similar assessments were made after the 2020 election, the outcome weighed even more heavily in the NLD’s favor, and also explains why the ethnic parties fared so poorly, capturing none or no more than 13 seats.

That was the Shan National League for Democracy, which showed that it was still strong in areas where ethnic Shans make up the majority, but it lost in urban centers, where migrants from central Myanmar and other nationalities are more numerous.

The ethnic Kachin parties, which many local observers thought would fare well at the ballot box, were routed by the NLD and to a much lesser extent the USDP, capturing a paltry single seat in the central parliament and four in the local assembly.

Kachin state has a huge migrant population of Bamars and people from Rakhine state, who work in the Hpakan jade mines, in road construction crews, banana plantations and other manual fields. Previously, the requirement was for migrants to have stayed in their current place of work for a minimum of 180 days or six months to have the right to vote where they reside.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during military exercises in the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in February 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/STR
Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is now in charge. Photo: AFP/Pool/Stringer

But under the NLD government, this regulation was changed to just 90 days, or 3 months, just before the 2020 election. Indigenous Kachins are outnumbered in most parts of their state by migrants and resident non-Kachins such as local Shans. None of them were likely to vote for any ethnic Kachin party.

According to still unconfirmed reports, the new military-appointed president, ex-general Myint Swe, and behind him military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing may try to play the ethnic and small parties cards to gain at least some semblance of legitimacy for their coup.

That will mean gathering the leaders of ethnic and other parties — including the USDP — which failed to get what they see as their fair share of seats in the national parliament and local assemblies.

They will likely be told that new elections with proportional representation to the parliament and assemblies will be introduced, which would better reflect the will of all voters and not only the country’s largest political party, the NLD.

With emergency regulations in force, that is something the military can now do by fiat without consulting any elected representatives. If their efforts are successful, the military will orchestrate the NLD’s emasculation. Even if the party emerges as the winner after the next election, it would be easier to control and manipulate with lesser numbers in parliament.

The military probably would not mind ultimately cooperating with the NLD. Indeed, there were indications after the last election that they intended to do just that rather than continue supporting losers such as the USDP and before it the military-run National Unity Party, which was routed by the NLD in the first 1990 election.

After the 2020 election, the USDP and several smaller parties wanted parliament to discuss the possibility of changing to a proportional representation system, but the NLD showed no interest in making the change ahead of the polls.

The USDP and the military also tried to change the clause in the constitution that says that the union president appoints the chief ministers of the country’s seven regions and seven states.

They proposed instead that the chief ministers should be selected by regional assemblies in those regions and states. That suggestion, which got some local support especially in the ethnic states, was also rejected by the NLD but could be introduced under military rule.

The military-appointed members of parliament attend a session in Naypyidaw on March 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

The ethnics, as ever, are damned if they do — cooperating with an unpopular and according to most observers illegitimate military regime — and damned if they don’t because they might lose a chance to get the proportional representation they sought at the last year’s ballot box.

But if those changes are promulgated, elections could – as the military coup-makers have pledged – be held by next February. But it will still be the military that calls the shots in accordance with the 2008 constitution, which their appointees drafted in various ways to the generals’ political favor.

A previous generation of coup-makers who overthrew the 1990 election result stalled for over two decades before allowing new polls. And while Myanmar may this time be headed back to some form of democracy sooner than most anticipate, any such move will be tainted by a coup and electoral changes that will inevitably be viewed as illegitimate at home and abroad.