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The 2015 Myanmar General Elections and “Post-Junta” Politics Toshihiro Kudo Professor National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) [Date of Issue: 31/March/2016 No.0253-1005]

Date of Issue: 31/March/2016

The 2015 Myanmar General Elections and "Post-Junta" Politics

Toshihiro Kudo
National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS)

The 2015 general elections spell the true dawn of a "post-junta" era for Myanmar. Ideological politics focused on the single issue of democratization are gradually fading, with Myanmar now transitioning to performance politics whereby politicians compete based on the content and execution of their policy packages, economic growth included. Signs of that shift were discernable even in the recent election results. Here we examine the election results and look ahead at the prospects for "post-junta" politics.

A true "post-junta" dawn

In November 2015, Myanmar held its first round of general elections since the country's transition to civilian government. This was the country's second national vote to be based on the 2008 Constitution, the first having taken place in November 2010. The 2015 election produced a landslide victory for the major opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which captured 390 of the 491 contested seats in both houses of parliament (equating to 79.4 percent). The incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by President Thein Sein, was trounced, taking only 41 seats (equating to 8.4 percent). Even given the 166 parliamentary seats reserved for military appointees nominated by the Commander in Chief of Myanmar's Armed Forces, the NLD will still hold around 60 percent of parliament, which is sufficient for the party to select a president without forming a coalition.

The 2015 elections had historical significance. At the previous general elections in November 2010, the USDP won 388 of the 493 contested seats (equating to 78.7 percent). Back then, however, Myanmar's military government had Suu Kyi under house arrest, and the NLD boycotted the election. Going back further to the 1990 general election, much as in 2015, the NLD won 397 out of 485 seats (equating to 81.9 percent) in what was then a Constituent Assembly in a unicameral system, but because the military government refused to relinquish power, the election results remained unrealized. Prior to 1990 when Myanmar was under a socialist regime, a vote of confidence was the ticket to power. The last legitimate general elections held in Myanmar were in 1960, 55 long years ago. The 2015 elections were accordingly the first to be held on a free and fair basis in Myanmar in half a century.

That was not the only purport, however. The election has ushered in a new era for Myanmar in two senses. The first is that the USDP and the military have accepted the transfer of power to the NLD as the representative chosen by the people in a general election. As a result, a new NLD administration will come into being at the end of March 2016, spelling an end to the vicious cycle of the last quarter-century whereby the pro-democracy movement, spearheaded by Suu Kyi, and the military, led by former head of state Than Shwe, engaged in a bitter struggle over democratization, with living conditions in Myanmar deteriorating markedly in the process. Myanmar now stands on the brink of a true post-junta era.

The second is that politics—or, more accurately, party politics—will begin in Myanmar (or revive for the first time since the 1950s). Suu Kyi's populist NLD won the 2015 elections on the single issue of democratization. However, a closer look at the election results suggests that they may already reflect Myanmar's social pluralism and diverse interests to some extent. In the coming years, the NLD, USDP and ethnic minority parties will lead the way in competing for voter support on the basis of their own policy positions and sets of policies rather than just a single issue. In other words, ideological politics focused on democratization will gradually give way to performance politics where the emphasis is on economic growth and other results. (*1)

Below I analyze the 2015 election results as a window on Myanmar's nascent party politics.

The single-member constituency system and election results

In both the Assembly of the People (Lower House) and House of Nationalities (Upper House) in Myanmar's Union Parliament, members are elected by absolute majority vote in single-member constituencies. The Lower House elects 330 seats, each representing one of Myanmar's 330 townships, while the Upper House elects 168 seats from the 12 constituencies within each of Myanmar's seven states and seven regions. Because this system generates a large number of wasted votes, a discrepancy emerges between the ratio of seats won and the percentage of votes obtained.

Table 1 certainly reveals a considerable gap between the two in the 2015 general elections. In both houses, the NLD won around 80 percent of seats with around 60 percent of the vote, while the USDP took less than 10 percent of seats with around 30 percent of the vote. If Myanmar had adopted proportional representation, the USDP would have won around 30 percent of contested parliamentary seats, which, combined with 25 percent of parliamentary seats allocated to the military, could well have allowed the party to remain in power. In fact, the USDP proposed to parliament prior to the election that the election system be changed to proportional representation, recognizing at a very early stage that the current system would work in favor of the NLD and against the USDP.

However, despite the USDP's parliamentary majority, the change to the election system failed to eventuate. While changing the election system in Myanmar might be arduous—for a start, a constitutional amendment is required—it was hardly unachievable. President Thein Sein possibly lacked the political will to maintain power at all costs, or perhaps he judged that the people would not tolerate the USDP using the military seats to remain in power despite an election loss.

Table 1: Results of 2015 General Elections  (seat and vote percentages of NLD/USDP in both houses) Competition among the NLD, USDP and ethnic minority parties

Looking at the election results primarily from the percentage of votes, Table 1 shows that the NLD took high percentages in both houses in Myanmar's seven regions, where the ethnic Bamar majority are concentrated, but low percentages in the seven states, where ethnic minorities predominate. The USDP too took higher percentages in regions than states, but the difference was not as pronounced as with the NLD. Compared to the NLD, the USDP could be described as relatively strong in the states.

Figures 1 and 2 examine the voting percentage correlations between the NLD and the USDP and between the NLD and other parties (primarily ethnic minority parties) for the Lower House. From Figure 1, we observe an inverse correlation between the NLD and the USDP in the seven regions, which means that they are in competition with each other. Particularly in the populous Yangon Region with its many opportunities to capture votes, the NLD took more than 70 percent of the vote, drubbing the USDP. It has generally been thought that the greatest beneficiaries of the political and economic reforms instituted by President Thein Sein and the USDP were Yangon residents. The foreign capital flowing in as a result of the government opening up the economy has primarily targeted Yangon, and Yangon is where the greatest number of people have found jobs or made money out of rising land prices. Infrastructure development too has proceeded rapidly in Yangon. But yet of all 14 regions and states, it was the Yangon Region where the USDP captured its lowest percentage of votes.

The Ayeyarwady Region was the opposite. Where the NLD recorded its lowest voting percentage among the seven regions in Ayeyarwady, the USDP achieved its best performance there amongst all 14 regions and states. The NLD manifesto, entitled "Time for Change", clearly identifies agricultural and rural development and resolution of the farmland issue as the party's highest priorities. Given that the Ayeyarwady Region is Myanmar's largest granary, it would not have been surprising if the NLD had received strong support from farmers there, but that was not in fact the case. Both USDP Chairman President Thein Sein and USDP Co-Chairman Htay Oo are from Ayeyarwady Region, and the USDP campaigned vigorously there. Combined with the Thein Sein administration's reforms and developmental efforts for the past four and a half years, the USDP attracted a fair degree of supports in Ayeyarwady Region.

Next, Figure 2 shows the NLD in inverse correlation to, and consequently in competition with, ethnic minority parties in the states. (*2) In 2015, the NLD did not engage in election cooperation with ethnic minority parties, but rather put up its own candidates in virtually all state constituencies. Voters were forced to choose between demonstrating their ethnic identity by voting for the local minority party or voting for the NLD as a national party and contributing to regime change. As a result, a large chunk of the vote went to local parties in places with powerful ethnic minority parties like Rakhine State and Shan State, while the NLD was chosen in those places without strong ethnic minority parties.

The USDP, by contrast, received around 25 percent of the vote across all states, suggesting that the party was not in direct competition with either the NLD or the ethnic minority parties. As noted earlier, Yangon residents profited most from the reforms instituted by President Thein Sein and the USDP, while farmers and residents in states were not thought to have done particularly well out of the program. Why, despite this, did the USDP manage to win a level of support in the seven states? Perhaps locals supported the effort which President Thein Sein and his party had been making to extend an olive branch to ethnic minority armed groups, or perhaps infrastructure development in the various states won some approval. Because a number of states have unsettled border regions, many Armed Forces, border guard and police personnel are stationed there, and it may well have been these personnel, not the locals, who supported the USDP. Inter-party competition in the regions and states and factors in the distribution of support will merit more detailed analysis.

Figure 1: NLD and USDP voting percentages by region and state, Figure 2:  Voting percentages of the NLD and other parties (excluding USDP) by region and state Flat NLD performance vs a good fight by the USDP?

Next I would like to turn to the change in the voting percentages achieved by the NLD and the USDP in the two free and fair general elections of 1990 and 2015. The election system was of course different in 1990 and 2015, and the USDP did not even exist in 1990. While to some extent I am therefore jamming square pegs in round holes, I want to compare (1) the percentage of the vote which the NLD took in the 1990 Constituent Assembly election (397 seats) with its percentage in the Assembly of the People election (323 seats) in 2015, and (2) for the USDP, the percentage of the vote which the National Unity Party (NUP) took in the 1990 Constituent Assembly election and the USDP percentage in the Assembly of the People election in 2015. Note that the NUP was the successor to the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), and that at the time of the 1990 elections, the military government apparently planned to transfer power to the NUP. However, with the 1988 nationwide democracy movement emerging in opposition to the BSPP, the fact that the general election was held barely two years later in 1990 could be regarded as having produced an abnormally poor showing for the NUP in that election. With these cautions in mind, let's examine the figures.

Table 2 compares the voting percentages taken by the NLD and NUP in the 1990 general elections and the percentages taken by the NLD and USDP in the 2015 election. The NLD actually lost percentage points at both the national level and in 10 of the 14 regions and states. The USDP, by contrast, improved its percentage at both the national level and in 13 regions and states, with Yangon Region the only exception. However, as the change was only around three percent at the national level, it could feasibly be dismissed as an error. If we do see meaning in these figures—in other words, if we do not dismiss the change as an error, or reject the validity of the comparison—how should we interpret them?

There are a number of possibilities. First, the NLD was continually oppressed by the military government from the time the party formed in 1988, so was virtually unable to engage in political activity until 2011. The 2012 by-elections won seats for NLD Chair Suu Kyi as well as other party members, but because the NLD was a minority party in parliament, it was unable to demonstrate to the public any striking results. Suu Kyi's national popularity continued, but the party lost the support of those voters emphasizing political performance. This is one interpretation. Another is that it could have something to do with the growing representation of a generation who are unaware of the 1988 democratization movement on which Suu Kyi cut her political teeth. The 18-year-olds of 1988 turned 45 in 2015. The generation aged 44 or younger which presumably doesn't know much about those times consequently accounts for 64 percent of the voting population aged 18 or above. Unlike the 'generation of 88', this younger generation without firsthand experience of the democracy movement probably feels much less negative toward the military. Yet another possibility is that voters approved of the results of the reform-from-above program pursued by President Thein Sein and the USDP over the last four and a half years.

Table 2: Changes in the percentage of votes captured by the major parties in the Assembly of People (1990→2015) Post-junta politics

The 2015 general elections spell the true dawn of a "post-junta" era for Myanmar. Ideological politics focused on the single issue of democratization are gradually fading, with Myanmar now transitioning to performance politics whereby politicians compete based on the content and execution of their policy packages, economic growth included. Signs of that shift were discernable even in the recent election results.

In this new environment, Suu Kyi and the NLD are likely to become more pragmatic, with the NLD adopting a more centrist line. For the defeated USDP, the key to its survival will be the extent to which it can break free of being the "Armed Forces' party" and transform into a big-tent party able to garner broad support across the population. The USDP too is therefore likely to become more centrist in order to gain public support. With both the NLD and USDP becoming more centrist and pragmatic, to the extent that the single-member constituency system does not change, it will be difficult for a third force to emerge. However, ethnic minority parties will continue to exist as an expression of ethnic identity. Particularly in states and local assemblies which have high representativeness under the election system, small ethnic minority parties too are likely to survive.

As the policy positions of the NLD and USDP draw closer, the new NLD administration will have to deepen and evolve President Thein Sein's reform program, and constructive cooperation in that endeavor could well provide a way for the USDP to transform itself from an elite party into a party closer to the people. For both the NLD and USDP, pitting their policies against each other should see both parties boost their policy-making and implementation capacity.

The new NLD administration will have to cooperate with the Armed Forces if it hopes to keep the country on an even keel. This in turn will require (at least tacit) agreement that the Armed Forces will accept the NLD administration and support democratization (in other words, not provoke a coup d'état), while the NLD will not interfere in the autonomy of the Armed Forces or immediately begin to pare away its special political rights and economic interests. That agreement would appear to be materializing through the ongoing dialogue between Suu Kyi and the Armed Forces' Commander in Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, since the elections, although there remain some tensions between the two.

The greatest concern is whether the NLD has sufficient policy-making and implementation capacity. President Thein Sein's administration freed Myanmar's economy from the oppression of the junta years, and opening and liberalizing the economy ushered in new growth. It was a type of postwar recovery period, and as such was to some extent an automatic process. However, with Myanmar's economy now entering a "post-recovery" phase, it will require somewhat finer tuning. Stronger party and government organization and human resource development will be vital if the new government is to respond to public sentiment across all classes and regions and develop and implement effective policies that keep pace with the massive changes occurring in the international environment. Building trust and establishing a division of labor between the NLD and bureaucratic institutions and administrators will be vital. The NLD's job will be to lay out a medium- to long-term national vision and direction, with administrators drafting specific policies. The NLD needs to make the decisions, bureaucrats to implement them. Close cooperation between the two will be essential.

Finally, in the post-junta years, sustained and broad-based economic growth will be impossible unless the government can lock in both stability and reform. The international community, Japan included, should extend its full support to enable Myanmar to achieve this.

Ino, Kenji (2016), "Reference: Results of the 2015 Myanmar elections" in Center for Fundamental Education Bulletin, University of Kita-Kyushu, No. 24, pp.85-133 [in Japanese]
--- (1992), "Reference: Results of the 1990 Myanmar elections" in Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa Newsletter, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, No. 75, pp.14-41 [in Japanese]
Kudo, Toshihiro (2012), "Interpreting the results of Myanmar's 2010 elections" in Toshiro Kudo ed., The Actual State of Myanmar Politics: The Merits and Demerits of 23 Years of Military Rule and Prospects for the New Administration (Institute of Developing Economies), pp.41-70 [in Japanese]

(*1) Note that one fourth of the seats in the Union, and Region and State Parliaments are reserved for military representatives nominated by the Commander in Chief of Myanmar's Armed Forces, based on the constitution of 2008. Moreover, three ministers for defense, home affairs and border affairs are nominated by the Commander in Chief, not by the President. Myanmar's Armed Forces continue to play an important political role even in a "post-junta" era.

(*2) "Other parties (excluding USDP)" in Figure 2 virtually equates to ethnic minority parties in the case of the states.

(original article : Japanese)
(For the Japanese version of this article)

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