Myanmar's April 1 By-Elections: What’s at Stake?
March 26, 2012
Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will stand in by-elections on April 1. This is the first time Suu Kyi and the NLD have participated in elections since 1990. In that election, the NLD swept 392 out of the 492 contested seats, but the results were annulled by the military regime. Opposition figures that resisted military rule were arrested, others went into exile. Suu Kyi was detained on July 20, 1989, and placed under house arrest where she remained for almost 15 of the next 21 years.
Suu Kyi was released on November 13, 2010, following national elections earlier that month that saw a nominally civilian government headed by President Thein Sein replace the military junta. The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections because of what it said were “unjust” political party registration laws. One law required the NLD to expel any members with criminal records, including Suu Kyi, in order to register in the elections.
Nascent democratic reforms implemented by the new administration over the past year have altered the country’s political climate, prompting the NLD to reregister in late 2011 in order to participate in the April by-elections. Suu Kyi’s decision to rejoin the political process is an important endorsement of the president’s reform efforts.
Myanmar’s by-elections carry outsized significance. For many foreign governments, including the United States, as well as humanitarian organizations and human rights groups, the by-elections are an important litmus test for assessing the commitment of the Thein Sein administration to democratic reforms. In addition, it will be an indicator of the president’s ability to overcome factional divides in the government and persuade conservatives to accept his leadership. Many foreign governments have made conducting “free and fair’’ by-elections a key condition for easing sanctions against Myanmar.
Q1: What is up for grabs?
A1: Myanmar’s Parliament consists of the People’s Assembly (or Lower House with 440 seats) and the Nationalities Assembly (or Upper House with 224 seats). There are also 14 regional assemblies of varying sizes.
Originally, of the bicameral national Parliament’s 664 seats, 46 seats, or about 7 percent, were up for election on April 1. But on March 23, Myanmar’s Election Commission announced that it was postponing voting in three constituencies in northern Kachin state as “security conditions are not conducive to conducting a free and fair by-election.” The commission said voting would be held when security conditions improved.
So now, 37 instead of the original 40 Lower House seats will be contested on April 1, 6 for the Upper House and 2 for regional assemblies. Regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members of Parliament had vacated the seats when they took up ministerial posts or other positions in the executive branch. Newly elected parliamentarians will serve until general elections are next held in 2015.
Under Myanmar’s current constitution, 25 percent of parliamentary seats in all chambers are reserved for serving military officers. The military-backed USDP party controls 76 percent of nonmilitary seats in the Parliament. By some estimates, the military and the military-backed parties control about 84 percent of the seats in Parliament.
A total of 17 parties are taking part in the by-elections, including the NLD and the pro-military USDP. The NLD is fielding candidates for almost every seat. Suu Kyi will run in Kawhmu township, a constituency south of Yangon.
Q2: What would constitute a “free and fair’’ by-election?
A2: While the NLD is expected to win a good number of the seats it is contesting, experts argue that the election process is more important than the actual results. The United States and other countries will not only be scrutinizing what takes place on the actual day of the elections, but also what happens in the run-up to and the aftermath of the voting itself.
Observers will be looking for essential criteria, such as whether opposition parties were able to campaign freely around the country. Come election day, the United States will want to see that voters feel free to vote their conscience.
Also important is whether electoral rolls were properly updated, voters were properly registered, and voting was done through a secret ballot. Other crucial criteria include ensuring the integrity of the ballot to prevent multiple voting or voting by those not entitled and ensuring the integrity of the vote counting process. Poll results must be validated and made public. Winners should be treated fairly once in Parliament.
So far, Suu Kyi and the NLD have voiced concern about irregularities in voter lists, such as some lists containing the names of deceased people and underage voters.
Suu Kyi has also complained that officials censored a paragraph criticizing the former junta from the text of her campaign speech aired on state television. The NLD has also charged that its campaign posters in the capital Naypyitaw have been vandalized and accused the government of denying candidates use of sports grounds for political rallies.
In the 2010 election, there were reports of multiple voter fraud, voter manipulation, ghost voting, and coerced voting, in which individuals were pressured to vote for USDP candidates.
President Thein Sein has admitted that there have been “unnecessary errors” in ballot lists. According to state media reports on March 26, he urged the country to respect “the decision of the people” in the by-elections.
Q3: Will the government allow election observers?
A3: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced on March 20 that Myanmar had invited the ASEAN Secretariat to send a five-member observer delegation, accompanied by three journalists, to observe the by-elections. In addition, each ASEAN member state has been invited to send two members of Parliament and three journalists. Myanmar has asked that ASEAN observers arrive in Yangon on March 28, four days before the election.
President Thein Sein on March 21 further extended the invitation to observe the by-elections to ASEAN’s dialogue partners—Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. The countries have each been invited to send a small delegation.
The United States said on March 21 it will send two election observers and three journalists.
Domestically, Myanmar’s Election Commission announced on March 13 that by-election candidates would be allowed to post one party representative at polling stations in the constituencies they are contesting.
However, analysts say observers may at best get a limited picture of the polling, and foreign governments may view the short preparation time and the small number of delegates allowed as insufficient for properly assessing the polls. In addition, some analysts worry that ASEAN, which includes several nondemocratic states and states that have not been willing to strongly criticize Myanmar in the past, cannot adequately monitor the elections.
Q4: What is the likely response of the United States?
A4: If the United States is satisfied that Myanmar’s government did its best to ensure the polls were as close to free and fair as possible, Washington is expected to follow up with reciprocal action. While Washington will not be able to—nor will it want to—eliminate the complex web of sanctions against Myanmar overnight, there are steps it can take to reward the government, especially if Suu Kyi characterizes the election in a positive light.
For example, some sanctions can be waived by executive order if the administration decides it is in U.S. national interests to do so. The White House may also ask Congress to consider legislation easing some existing sanctions.
Experts say that partially lifting visa bans for individual officials to travel from Myanmar to the United States might be useful to further engagement. Washington may also consider a nuanced easing of sanctions on investment and business that would have a direct, positive impact on improving the livelihoods of Myanmar’s citizens.
Q5: What impact could opposition parliamentarians have on Myanmar’s political process?
A5: Suu Kyi has said she is unlikely to take up a cabinet post because under Myanmar’s current constitution, members of Parliament must vacate their seats if they take up ministerial posts.
In campaign speeches, she has called for more freedom of speech, respect for human rights and rule of law, as well as improvements in minority relations, education, health care, jobs, agriculture, and the lives of workers and Myanmar’s youth.
Most notably, Suu Kyi has said that she wants to revise the country’s 2008 constitution, which gives the military wide-ranging powers. The military can appoint key cabinet members, take control of the country in a state of emergency, and occupy a quarter of the seats in Parliament.
It remains to be seen how much change Suu Kyi and the NLD can actually bring about once in Parliament. Even if the opposition wins all the seats it contests, the USDP and military members of Parliament will make up a sufficient majority to pass legislation and constitutional amendments without the support of any other political party. This means that it will be a long, hard slog to transform a system that has been constructed to keep political power in the hands of the military.
It is more likely that Suu Kyi and her colleagues will serve as voices of reform in Parliament. Suu Kyi has made a tactical decision to operate within the system. Being in Parliament will give her a prized opportunity to persuade members of the USDP and the military, which may be less unified than they appear, to join her democratic cause.
There are signs of a growing divide between reformers and hardliners in the USDP, highlighted by Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann’s February 22 remarks calling the pace of reform too “sluggish.” If so, Suu Kyi’s faction in Parliament might serve as a valuable partner for the reformist faction within the USDP to continue moving the reform agenda forward.
Q6: Will the by-elections have long-term implications on Myanmar’s political process?
A6: The by-elections will undoubtedly have long-term impact. Suu Kyi could be laying the groundwork now with an eye on the 2015 general elections, rather than trying to achieve anything immediate. Suu Kyi will be 70 in 2015, so there is one more chance for her to take a top leadership role in Myanmar. Her recent calls for changes to the constitution may be seen as tactical maneuvering, in preparation for a bigger goal in the near future.
The by-elections are an indicator of how far President Thein Sein’s authority goes in the country. Experts believe that the president is sincere about reforms, but at the same time, he has to make sure his policies and orders filter down and are implemented at lower levels of government. He and other reformists in the government are up against others who want to block reforms to protect their political and financial interests. If the president is unable to ensure free and fair elections in a few dozen constituencies, it would cast serious doubts on his political clout and his capabilities to push through and sustain his reform plans in the long term.
Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Tracy Quek is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.