Election campaign under lockdown (Yangon, 1st of October 2020)

Myanmar in Transition: The 2020 Elections

by Dr. Axel Harneit-Sievers 

Myanmar is scheduled to hold its general elections on November 8th, 2020. In this dossier, the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Yangon office presents analysis and opinion – mostly by Myanmar authors – about the experience of democratic politics and about expectations for the future. Many observers say that Myanmar is in the middle of a democratic transition. But how do people in Myanmar actually look at the politics of the last few years? How do they judge the current state of things and what do they hope and expect for the future?

The elections provide a good opportunity to invite observation and comment. Some of our authors look at parties and party politics; others focus on particular areas of policy such as the environment or education; others, again, at particular debates, such as the one about federalism and the peace process.

When the first free and fair elections since many decades took place in 2015, they turned out to be a referendum about military rule, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) winning by a large measure. This time, and with the NLD five years in office, things are different, and the election is likely to be more competitive.

The 2020 elections are taking place in a difficult situation. Most obviously, there is the Covid-19 pandemic which seemed to be successfully contained for several months, making the Electoral Commission confident enough in July to announce an election date. However, rapidly rising infection figures since late August have led to increasingly severe restrictions in everyday life, making a regular election campaign impossible. This has a number of political parties to call for a postponement of the elections – an idea strictly rejected by others, especially the NLD, as it is believed it may play into the hands of the military. The pandemic dynamics is likely to constitute a risk to the successful holding of the elections right to the last moment. It will also limit the deployment of local and international electoral observers that helped to strengthen the legitimacy of the 2015 elections.

Beyond the pandemic situation, Myanmar’s fundamental issues and conflicts continue to influence the election process. The 2008 constitution gives a strong role to the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military). This has led to a peculiar bipolar political order in which the elected civilian government and the Tatmadaw exert power in separate fields, in an often uneasy, sometimes directly competitive manner. Conflicts around ethnicity and religion strongly impact upon politics. Armed conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw is likely to make holding the elections impossible in parts of Rakhine. At the same time, most of the Muslims who have remained in Rakhine after 2017 continue to be discriminated against and have been disenfranchised by means of a discriminatory citizenship legislation.

The successful holding of the 2020 elections, coming at a very difficult point in time, will be highly relevant for the future of democracy in Myanmar. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is pre-occupied with the Covid-19 pandemic and (if it looks at the country at all) tends to view Myanmar through the lens of the Rohingya refugee crisis which plays remarkably little role in domestic politics and in the elections as well. This dossier wants to redirect attention to perspective from Myanmar at a particular critical point in the history of the country.