The explanation is much more paradoxical than just popularity.
YANGON, Myanmar — The National League for Democracy, the incumbent party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, secured another landslide victory in the general elections of Nov. 8. It did better even than in 2015, a landmark election, winning this year 396 of the 476 elected seats to be filled in both the lower and the upper houses. (Another 166 seats were reserved for military appointees.)
And the N.L.D. obtained this result despite the government’s weak performance on its key pledges during its first term in office — constitutional reform, national reconciliation and peace, socioeconomic improvement — and the rise of both ethnic minority parties and new challengers. In addition to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (U.S.D.P.), some 90 parties fielded candidates this year.
So what does the outcome say about what Myanmar’s voters really care about?
In 2015, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi embodied hope and change, but while her popularity endures today, its nature has changed. Her party’s success at the polls this month has less to do with what she stands for than what she stands against: the military’s enduring power, including in civilian affairs.
That, at least, is for the more predictable part of this argument. Now comes the paradox: The N.L.D., which was the incumbent party in this election for the first time, also benefited from various structural features created by the military regime that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has fought for decades.
The N.L.D.’s resounding victory speaks to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability, still, to rally voters in opposition to the military and its political proxies, and in the name of democratic development. In a country ravaged by a half century of military misrule — and in which the military today still controls major ministries and has veto power both in Parliament and over any proposed amendment to the Constitution — the civil-military divide remains the most important political issue for many people in Myanmar, whatever misgivings they might have about the N.L.D.’s governance.
Less than a week before the vote, the country’s commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, urged the national election commission to be “careful” — a suggestion that he might challenge the election’s results.
A few days later, the nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu, who is known for both his links to the military and inflammatory language against Muslims, resurfaced in public after more than a year on the run: In May 2019, he was charged with sedition for insulting Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. As he handed himself over to the police, he called on his followers “to vote for the parties that work to protect the country’s race and religion.”
Then on Nov. 6 a bomb exploded at the office of the election commission in Bago, a small city about 40 miles from Yangon. Speculation was rife on social media that the explosion was somehow connected to the ominous statements of General Min Aung Hlaing and Ashin Wirathu.
But neither that act of violence nor the fear-mongering nor the veiled threats seem to have served the old establishment: If anything, all that appears to have only reminded voters of the country’s terrifying past, playing into the N.L.D.’s own campaign rhetoric. The U.S.D.P. will now hold just 71 seats out of a total of 1,117 in the national Parliament and all states and local assemblies; that’s 46 fewer than in 2015. No party that ran on an ultranationalist platform won any seat.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi also seems to have garnered admiration in Myanmar for defending her government — and so, as was widely perceived, the country itself — against accusations of genocide against the Rohingya at a hearing before the International Court of Justice last year. Many people here see her defense as an ultimate sacrifice for Myanmar, perhaps in particular because she stood up for the country in the face of accusations against her lifelong foes: the military.
In other words, voting for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was partly an expression of gratitude to a mother figure who is seen as having sacrificed her personal well-being, her life and now, too, her iconic reputation worldwide for Myanmar’s democracy and development.
Yet this alone doesn’t explain her party’s success: The N.L.D., after five years in power, also benefited from various incumbent’s advantages — including prerogatives and policies that were put in place by the previous military regime.
Myanmar’s elections are determined according to the first-past-the-post (or winner-take-all) principle, which can produce a ratio of seats-to-votes that doesn’t strictly represent an electorate’s preferences overall. What’s more, the system encourages tactical voting, including in ethnic regions. Some ethnic voters seem to have voted for the N.L.D., a strong and established party, rather than their real first choice — a small ethnic party — because defeating the military’s proxies remained an absolute priority.
The ethnic minority parties did not perform well at the national level, even though they had merged or forged alliances to avoid splitting the vote. (Some did, however, make modest gains that will give them some influence in state legislatures, including in Shan, Rakhine and Kayah States.)
Likewise for some new parties that had splintered from the N.L.D. or were created in opposition to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s centralized leadership or her government’s weak economic performance, such as the People’s Party, the People’s Pioneer Party and the Union Betterment Party. None of those won any seat.
And this is to say nothing of the fact that more than 1.5 million voters in ethnic regions weren’t allowed to vote, ostensibly because of security reasons; or that measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus hampered the in-person campaigns of small parties; or that the state media censored dissenting voices — all factors that created an uneven playing field for the opposition, especially resource-strapped ethnic parties.
Then there is demography. Decades of a “Burmanization” policy, a systematic effort to culturally assimilate the country’s very many ethnic groups, have further institutionalized benefits and privileged access to public services for the majority Bamar ethnic group. Another effect has been to change the composition and balance of the population in some ethnic regions, typically to the disadvantage of local ethnic groups — a result that has sometimes been compounded by internal migrations caused by poverty.
Demographic changes also disserved ethnic parties in this month’s elections in Kachin, Karen and Mon States, and all the more so because in early 2020 the N.L.D. government lowered the residency requirement for voters (from 180 days to 90 days), allowing many migrants or very new residents — in most cases, from the majority Bamar group — to vote in ethnic minority regions.
So now what? Is the election’s outcome, and the people’s powerful re-endorsement of the government, a validation of the N.L.D.’s version of democracy: super-majoritarian and, some might say, illiberal?
On Nov. 12, the N.L.D. sent a letter to 48 ethnic political parties inviting them to join it in building a federal democratic union and “ending civil war.” “The ethnic parties’ objectives are the same as the N.L.D.’s, and the N.L.D. will prioritize the ethnic peoples’ desires in the future,” the letter said. A party spokesman also said that new government “must be a national unity government.”
This is a welcome step, and it suggests that the N.L.D. is aware that even its apparently commanding mandate and ringing popularity have political limits in such a divided society. The risk, though, is that the party might only be gesturing at a government of national unity and will then try to co-opt the ethnic parties with various political rewards.
But sticking with the political status quo would not help solve the country’s deepest problems; more likely, it would create even more deadlock — and breed anti-system resentment; more radical ethnic nationalism, as already exists in Rakhine State; or adventurism on the part of the military.
Civil-military relations have been deteriorating. Ethnic conflicts are intensifying. International pressure over the Rohingya crisis continues. Socio-economic hardships have worsened with the coronavirus pandemic. The N.L.D.’s victory was a vote of confidence that it can do better, not an endorsement for more of the same.
* This analysis article was originally published on The New York Times website on 23rd November 2020 and it will be in The New York Times International Print Edition on November 24th.
Min Zin is the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar, a think tank in Yangon.