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Myanmar Gears Up for November Election 

A voter cast her ballot for the by-election in Yangon, Myanmar, November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang
A voter cast her ballot for the by-election in Yangon, Myanmar, November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy party will almost certainly dominate the country's November 8 general elections but could lose the majority it has and needs in parliament to keep governing alone after a bruising first term, analysts say.

New and old insurgencies, disenfranchised Rohingya and travel restrictions imposed to check the coronavirus are also raising concerns about how credible the poll will be.

Campaigning for the 1,171 seats up for grabs in the bicameral national parliament, the Assembly of the Union or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and state and regional legislatures, got underway last week.

'A very simple choice'

Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi led the NLD to a historic landslide election win in 2015, routing the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party, which kick-started Myanmar's transition from decades of brutal dictatorship to quasi-civilian rule after winning a disputed poll five years earlier.

Though barred from the presidency by the military-drafted constitution, Suu Kyi effectively runs most of the government via a handpicked ally in the post. The charter also gives the military continued carte blanche over three key ministries — Border Affairs, Home Affairs and Defense — and a quarter of the seats in the parliament, just enough to veto any constitutional amendment.

Internationally, Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, has lost much of her democratic sheen for downplaying the Myanmar military's alleged massacre of ethnic minority Muslim Rohingya in late 2017; some 700,000 of them fled the far-western state of Rakhine for neighboring Bangladesh to escape a well-documented campaign of arson, rape and murder.

At home, though, she and her party remain wildly popular among the majority Buddhist and ethnic Bamar, who still see them as their best hope of pushing the country's widely reviled military out of politics for good, said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, a Myanmar research group.

"The wave of popularity, you know, is still... quite prevalent," he said. "Partly it's because of the hatred of the military. So it's a very simplistic choice and notion, saying that, OK, if you hate the military you have to support the NLD because that's the best chance."

By holding on to most of the Bamar vote, "the NLD will still win a substantial number of seats, but it will not be a landslide," Khin Zaw Win said. "That's the consensus now."

The reason for that, analysts agree, rests mainly with Myanmar's ethnic minorities.

Minority rapport

Split among a myriad of ethnic groups spread out along the country's fringes, minorities make up more than 40% of the population and played a big part in the NLD's 2015 landslide.

After decades of war between the military and a patchwork of ethnic rebel armies that has displaced hundreds of thousands, most minority voters that year pinned their hopes for peace and development on Suu Kyi and her party.

Instead, the last five years have been more like "a kick in the chest," said Khin Zaw Win.

Three-way peace talks between an alliance of ethnic armed groups, the military and Suu Kyi's government have made little progress. The effort has also failed to stop a new front in the country's civil war from opening up in northern Rakhine, where tens of thousands more have been displaced by intense fighting between the military and insurgent Arakan Army, which wants autonomy for the state's ethnic Rakhine.

The government's tone-deaf push to erect statues and name landmarks in minority-dominated areas in honor of Suu Kyi's late father, Aung San, an ethnic Bamar independence hero, have sparked protests and only deepened the country's ethnic fault lines, said Ye Myo Hein, an analyst with Myanmar's Tagaung Institute of Political Studies.

He expects smaller parties representing specific minorities to pick up many more seats this year than they did in 2015 in both local and national parliaments, maybe even enough to rob the NLD of another national majority and force it into a coalition government.

"Ethnic people are [now] considering that it's not workable to rely too much on the... central government," Ye Myo Hein said. "They are now thinking that they need the strength in the local level to negotiate with the NLD or any other forces from the Bamar side. So I think that they [have] changed their opinion during recent years."

He and Khin Zaw Win said the Union Solidarity Development Party and a new crop of other parties appealing mainly to the ethnic majority could also chip away at the NLD's support among Bamar voters in Myanmar's central "heartland" disappointed with the pace of economic growth and wary of Suu Kyi's warming courtship with China.

Free and fair

A recent a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases is also raising the prospects that the government will postpone the vote, said Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, who runs Myanmar's largest independent poll monitor, the People's Alliance for Credible Elections.

He said a combination of travel restrictions and fear of catching the virus is likely to suppress voter turnout in any case and see fewer election monitors at the polls than in 2015; both could dent how credible the election looks.

The recent fighting in Rakhine, and some long-running conflicts in eastern Myanmar, are also sparking predictions that the government may cancel polling altogether in those areas over security concerns and leave thousands of eligible voters without a say, most of them minorities.

Kyaw Swar Myint said a military-imposed internet blackout in northern Rakhine and a statewide stay-at-home order to fight the coronavirus are compromising the election there already by giving the NLD campaign more access to local voters thanks to its control of state media.

Myanmar's citizenship laws meanwhile effectively deny citizenship to most Rohingya, and by extension the right to vote. The government refuses to include them among the country's more than 130 officially recognized minority groups, even though many Rohingya families trace their roots in Myanmar several generations back.

Kyaw Swar Myint said Myanmar's elections would not be truly free and fair until everyone who deserves citizenship, and the right to vote, gets it.

"We always say that our nation-building process... will not be ever completed if we cannot include the people who are living in our country," he said.