Peace and Electoral Democracy in Myanmar
Friday, 13 September 2019
6 August 2019
Myanmar’s 2020 polls are a chance to consolidate electoral democracy in the country. Yet many ethnic minorities doubt that voting gives them a real say. To preempt possible violence, the government and outside partners should work to enhance the ballot’s inclusiveness and transparency.
What’s new?Myanmar will go to the polls in late 2020. Political positioning has begun in earnest, affecting important governmental decision-making. In ethnic-minority areas, particularly Rakhine State, there is growing disillusionment with electoral democracy that could fuel escalating violence.
Why does it matter? The pre-election period of political contestation will likely exacerbate ethnic tensions and conflict risks, particularly in the country’s periphery. At the same time, balloting will be a crucial opportunity to consolidate gains in electoral democracy – an important if insufficient step toward long-term peace and stability in Myanmar.
What should be done? To bolster ethnic minorities’ faith in elections, the government should signal its intention to appoint state chief ministers from the winning party in each state, rather than imposing National League for Democracy-led governments everywhere. More transparent decision-making about the likely cancellation of voting in conflict-affected areas would also help.

I. Overview
More than a year ahead of national elections in Myanmar, the key protagonists’ political positioning is already affecting policy on everything from the peace process to the economy. Political actors now see important decisions through an electoral lens. Political contestation during the campaign risks aggravating ethnic tensions and conflict, particularly in the country’s periphery; Rakhine State, where the anti-government Arakan Army continues an insurgent struggle for greater regional autonomy, is a likely flashpoint. The elections could also be a crucial if imperfect next step toward consolidating electoral democracy in Myanmar. The election commission and its international partners should focus on both mitigating conflict risks and enhancing the polls’ credibility.
As Aung San Suu Kyi remains hugely popular with her ethnic-majority Burman base, the election result is not really in doubt. The party she leads, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will handily win a majority of parliamentary seats.

What is in doubt is the salience of elections for those other than her core supporters. More and more, minorities feel excluded from or ill served by the electoral system. The alienation is clearest in Rakhine State, where most of the Rohingya remaining after the expulsion of more than 700,000 of them in 2017 have no prospect of gaining the vote. The ethnic Rakhine population – another minority – also feel that politics has failed them. The landslide victory of the main Rakhine party in 2015 was followed by the presidential imposition of an NLD government and a lack of subsequent national government engagement with Rakhine leaders. Angered, many ethnic Rakhine now support the Arakan Army insurgency.
As other ethnic minorities also chafe at the perception of a Burman nationalist NLD leadership, the elections could be a pivotal moment. On the one hand, they could help defuse tension by showing a peaceful method for these communities to gain a greater voice in their own governance. On the other, they could cement the impression that the NLD has a hammerlock on power at all levels and lead to dangerous scepticism of electoral democracy.
The government should take steps now to lay the groundwork for elections that instil greater confidence in the democratic process within these minority communities. One important measure would be for it to commit to appointing chief ministers (the top executives for each state) from the party that wins the most seats in state legislatures. Such appointments would go a long way toward giving minorities a say in their own governance and in official decisions affecting their lives – and would almost certainly build greater support for the electoral process.
A more transparent and inclusive electoral process in conflict-affected areas would also help mitigate the erosion of confidence in democracy. In places where the election commission will cancel voting for security reasons, it should be more transparent about the basis on which such decisions are made. The election commission and its international partners should also take advantage of the coming year to enhance the polls’ credibility, especially in the priority areas identified by election observation organisations. Improvements should include accurate updating of the voter rolls to ensure the registry of some five million new voters who have turned eighteen since 2015. Promoting greater representation of women, as candidates and on the currently all-male election commission, should also be a priority. Given the risks of conflict and the broader importance of making the elections as credible as possible, international partners should invest in long-term observation of the electoral process, not only election-day monitoring.

II. Electoral Positioning Begins
Though elections are not due to take place until 2020, probably that November, their impact on Myanmar politics is already evident. The main power-holders are jockeying for position ahead of the polls, as seen in several recent developments.

A. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy
Dissatisfied with its showing in November 2018 by-elections (see section III.A below), Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD has concluded that it needs some clear government accomplishments to present to the electorate in 2020. With near-term progress unlikely on substantive but hugely challenging priorities including job creation, expanded electricity supply, ethnic group rights and the peace process, the search is on for modest or even symbolic achievements.
For example, pre-election politics explains why the party made a surprise move on 29 January to form a parliamentary committee on constitutional change – to the consternation of the legislature’s military representatives, who stood in silent protest. The date was significant, being the two-year anniversary of the assassination of veteran NLD adviser and constitutional expert Ko Ni, who was both one of the country’s most prominent Muslim public figures and a leading proponent of Myanmar’s democratisation. The powerful military has a veto on amendments to the national charter and is highly unlikely to agree to alterations. Creating the committee, however, allows the NLD to argue that it is doing something to make the constitution more democratic and thus fulfil a key pledge ahead of the 2015 elections.