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Myanmar’s State Cousellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo by U.S. Department of State, Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsPhoto by U.S. Department of State via Wikimedia Commons; licensed as public domain (CC0)

Between the Pandemic and the Poll Booth: Myanmar’s 2020 Elections

The spiraling Covid-19 pandemic looms large over Myanmar’s upcoming general elections. Meanwhile, weakness in Myanmar’s social fabric, the conflict in Rakhine state, and shaky confidence in Myanmar’s electoral institutions all pose a big threat to democracy in the country.

On April 21, 2020, a World Health Organization driver, Pyae Sone Win Maung, was killed in Rakhine state, in Myanmar’s far West, while driving a marked UN vehicle carrying Covid-19 surveillance samples to Yangon for testing. None of the armed actors involved in the conflict in Rakhine have admitted responsibility for the attack, illustrating the pervasive insecurity in the area.

In 2016-17, Rakhine state saw a campaign of expulsion directed against the Rohingya minority that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The conditions that enabled this crime have not been addressed in any meaningful way, and Rohingya still in Myanmar remain fearful and isolated. Rakhine state has recently also been the site of the most active front in Myanmar’s seventy-two year old civil war, with clashes between the Arakan Army and the national armed forces, or Tatmadaw displacing hundreds of thousands since 2018.

The significance of the risk faced by Rakhine state’s marginalized and vulnerable population only became clear months later. Despite widespread fears that its health system, once described as the world’s weakest, was ill prepared to deal with a major pandemic, Myanmar successfully controlled its first wave of COVID-19, which arrived in the country in late March. However, by late August reports began to emerge that a COVID outbreak was spreading fast in Rakhine state, where local government and public services have been hollowed out as officials have fled the fighting and humanitarian organizations have been restricted from operating in most parts of the state. As the scale of the outbreak became clear and anticipating travel-restrictions would soon be imposed, thousands fled Rakhine, spreading COVID throughout the country. On September 28, Myanmar registered its ten-thousandth case of COVID-19. Though stay-at-home orders are in place in Yangon and most other major cities, the current outbreak shows no signs of slowing down.

Coronavirus spread has impacted smaller parties’ campaigns

Despite the mounting cases, Myanmar’s election management body, the Union Election Commission (UEC) has resisted calls by opposition parties for a postponement of the election. In mid September, the UEC reiterated that the 2020 elections would go ahead as planned on November 8. Controversy over the timing and process of the election has raised questions about the fairness of Myanmar’s electoral process and the specter of military intervention.

Opposition political parties argue that their preparation for the 2020 elections has been delayed by the public health measures in place since March, including restrictions on gatherings, which have made it more difficult to identify candidates for electoral races and prepare campaign platforms and strategies. These restrictions also impede conventional campaigning, forcing parties to rely on existing relationships with voters and social media campaigning. For smaller opposition parties that were hoping to attract voters dissatisfied with Myanmar’s major parties, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National League for Democracy (NLD), these conditions make an early election highly undesirable. In contrast, the NLD has not made any public call for a postponement. It already has a strong relationship with its voter-base, is better resourced and prepared for the election, is the undisputed heavyweight in social media campaigning, and can command news cycles with the presence of State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi (the de facto head of state).

This jockeying over the election date is part of a broader debate over Myanmar’s election management institutions and opposition parties are increasingly accusing the UEC of partisanship. The BTI Country Report for Myanmar highlights weak democratic institutions as a continued challenge for the country’s political transition, noting that “observers of the 2018 by-elections have criticized the lack of electoral reforms [and] Several challenges to electoral integrity remain.” The UEC chair and senior leadership is appointed by the president for a five-year term corresponding to his or her term of office. Ever since the UEC was created in 2010, opposition parties have alleged this made the commission unable to act in an impartial fashion. When the NLD was in opposition, it accused the UEC of favoritism towards the Union Solidarity and Development Party government of Thein Sein. Now that the USDP is in opposition, it claims it has “no confidence” in the UEC.

However, the recent meeting between dozens of opposition parties and Tatmadaw chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing represents a concerning escalation in this dynamic. On August 8, opposition parties, led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), petitioned the Tatmadaw to intervene in the event the UEC decided to “corrupt” the election.

Democracy vulnerable at election time

The UEC maintains elections will go ahead as planned but the virus may yet force its hand. There is no consensus among political parties about the implications of postponing elections beyond the current parliamentary term. The USDP (which was founded by retired generals, and handed power by the Tatmadaw as part of its managed transition to democracy) has claimed a State of Emergency would be required in the event of a long postponement. This could lead to the temporary control of the Myanmar executive by the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), where the military occupies a majority of seats.

New democracies are fragile creatures, and election times are when they are most vulnerable. The NLD, presumably, understands this well. In 1990, elections secured by the massive popular uprising of 1988 were won by the National League for Democracy party, only for this result to be ignored by the military junta that had promised the elections. Given the long struggle by pro-democracy forces to remove the Tatmadaw military forces from executive power, the increasing willingness of opposition parties to flirt with the possibility of inviting the Tatmadaw back in through the front-door, through the NDSC or as a guarantor of the legitimacy of elections, is troubling. But the UEC has also left itself open to some of these criticisms by failing to conduct itself in a manner that puts it beyond the reproach of partisanship. The complex, deeply political, questions involved in running an election during a pandemic show the importance of election management institutions that are independent (and seen to be independent) from partisan political agendas.

A version of this article was published on Asia Sentinel.

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