KAS

Country Reports

Elections 2020 in Myanmar

by Thomas S. Knirsch, Annabelle Heugas

…and the possible influence of Ethnic Parties

On November 8, 2020, despite the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, Myanmar will hold its third general elections since the political reforms started in 2010. 93 political parties with over 7,000 candidates will run for about 1,171 seats in both chambers of the Union Parliament and in the seven states and seven regional parliaments. More than 37 million citizens are eligible to vote in this year's parliamentary elections, 5 million of whom are first-time voters.

Ethnic Parties getting ready

While the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military-backed opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are the country's largest political parties, and will certainly remain so after the elections, the importance of the around 60 smaller ethnic parties for these upcoming elections should not be underestimated. Some political analysts even believe that neither the NLD nor the USDP will win enough seats to form a government. They argue that this could possibly open the door to a coalition government that could consist of alliances of different ethnic parties. The majority of commentators, however, believe that the NLD is again heading for undivided rule. They consider the idea of power-sharing unrealistic.

Whatever the prognosis, this country report will first give an overview of the constitutional framework governing the elections in Myanmar. It will then trace the development that enabled the country to move from authoritarian (military) rule to a parliamentary democracy with strong military influence. Finally, it will examine the importance of ethnic parties in the 

upcoming elections as well as other factors, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic, that could influence the elections and their outcome.

 

Myanmar's constitution, electoral legislation, and the rocky road to democracy

The most important points of the constitution regarding the elections can be summarized as follows:

The Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar's bicameral legislature at the Union level, is divided into the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities/Upper House) with 224 seats and the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives/Lower House) with 440 seats.

There are subnational parliaments and governments in each of the seven states and seven regions (ethnic areas) of the country.

25 % of the seats in all legislatures are reserved for the military, thus maintaining its influence and power in virtually all important issues.

The president is elected by an electoral college for a five-year term. He is responsible for appointing the cabinet, members of constitutional bodies, the Union Electoral Commission and for appointing Hluttaw representatives as Chief Ministers of the regions and states.

Despite the powers conferred on the president by the constitution as head of government, since 2015, the country's governance has been de facto in the hands of the State Counsellor. (A position introduced for Aung San Suu Kyi to counter the constitutional prohibition against Myanmar citizens with foreign spouses or children running for the presidency).

Myanmar holds its general elections every five years, usually in November.

In addition to the 2008 constitution, elections since 2010 are guided by the Union Election Commission Law, the Political Party Registration Law and by-laws governing party registration, Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Elections and regional and state Elections. The proper conduct of the elections and the application of the electoral laws, regulations and directives are monitored by the Union Election Commission. The elections follow a majoritarian voting system (First-Past-The-Post).

Since independence in 1948, Myanmar has had four types of government systems: The Westminster-style democracy (1948-58, 1960-62), the first-generation military junta as well as the caretaker government and Burma's Socialist Program Party (1959-60, 1962-88), the second-generation junta (1988-2011), the quasi-civilian administration of General Thein Sein (2012-15), and finally the national reconciliation government of Aung San Suu Kyi (starting from 2015).

The first elections were held in 1947, in which the Anti-Fascist League for the Freedom of the People (AFPFL) won 173 of the 210 seats, running in over 50 constituencies with no opposing candidates. After the election, Aung San, the student leader who became a general and then a politician, was to become prime minister. After the assassination of Aung San and six other cabinet members on July 19, 1947, before taking office, U Nu became both prime minister of Myanmar and leader of the AFPFL.

Three more elections were held after 1948. In the 1951-52 elections, the AFPFL won 199 of the 250 seats. In the 1956 elections, the popularity of the AFPFL declined, this time winning 148 of the 250 seats. At the end of this ballot, U Nu temporarily withdrew to reform the parties and Ba Swe assumed the role of elected prime minister.

After a split in the AFPFL, the military finally took power in October 1958 to create stability under the interim government of Ne Win. Subsequent elections were held in 1960, which were seen less as a competition between the AFPFL factions and more as a referendum on the policies of the interim military government. U Nu won the elections with 158 of 250 seats and 57 % of the vote. Despite this success, U Ne Win launched a coup d’état on March 2, 1962, which marked the beginning of authoritarian rule in Myanmar for the next 26 years.

Despite the cosmetic abolition of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (the "SLORC") in November 1997, which was henceforth to function as the State Peace and Development Council (the "SDPC"), Myanmar was ruled by a military junta from 1988 at the latest until 2010. During the rule of the SLORC, an election was held in May 1990 after the violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations by the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. In this election, the NLD won a landslide victory with 80 % of the seats and 392 of the 492 available parliamentary seats.

Despite the NLD victory, the SLORC refused to recognize the NLD victory and to form a government until a new constitution was drafted. Following the enactment of the 2008 constitution, U Thein Sein of the USDP still won 80 percent of the seats in the 2010 elections. Independent bodies disputed the legitimacy of the election results. The NLD boycotted the election primarily because of electoral laws that prohibited political prisoners and thus its own members from participating in the elections.

In the last elections in 2015, the NLD won a landslide victory with 86 % of all eligible seats in the Pyidaungsu-Hluttaw. Accepting this election result meant one thing above all else: It expressed the broad social consensus to end a military government or a military-backed government and begin an era of democracy in Myanmar. This striving for change was underscored by the high voter turnout of 70 %.

After the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi established a government of national reconciliation with a cabinet of 21 former civil servants and military generals. On April 6, 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was officially given the role of Myanmar's State Counsellor. This position allows her to communicate directly with state regulators in accordance with the State Council Law and makes her accountable to Parliament.

 

You can download the complete report as PDF.