With 93 political parties participating and some 37 million potential voters, Myanmar’s 8 November elections are an important step on an ill-defined road towards more representative, responsive governance. It is a road without a clear end, strewn with potholes and dangerous political, social and economic curves.
This election will be seen as another notch in the democratic process for Myanmar. It is likely to be generally free and fair. Restrictions will abound in the Rakhine region where fighting persists. The COVID-19 pandemic is also becoming more severe in Myanmar. Given these difficulties, the holding of a general election is progress in itself.
The change in Myanmar from Military rule to civilian control and some form of militarily-defined ‘discipline-flourishing’ democratic state remains difficult.
Some call the administration of President Thein Sein (2011–2016) a ‘quasi-military’ government and the National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi (2016–2021) a ‘quasi-civilian’ government.
What could result from the 2020 elections is a ‘quasi-democratic’ administration, a uniquely Burmese government tenuously balancing an amalgam of military, civilian and diverse ethnic minority interests. Free and fair elections are necessary for change, but they alone don’t make a democracy.
The dramatic transition from the procedural and public reforms of former president Thein Sein to the overwhelming victory of the NLD in the widely-applauded 2015 elections raised optimistic domestic and international expectations of decisive democratic transition and a solution to the pervasive dilemma of distributing power and resources among Myanmar’s ethnic communities.
This has not yet happened. A victory for the NLD over the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the 2020 elections is expected this time too, but with some waning support for the NLD in ethnic minority areas.