Did the NLD Win the Myanmar Election or Did the Ruling Party Lose?
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party was always favoured to perform well in Myanmar’s November 8 national elections. For more than twenty years, Suu Kyi and the loyal core of the party have been the most widely recognised and respected opposition to the country’s military and then quasi-civilian governments.
Yet the extent of their victory around the country has been surprising. And how this is interpreted both inside and outside the party will be crucial. On one hand the emphatic victory of the NLD could be seen as a vote ‘for’ their leadership in the country - a sign of trust and loyalty to the party. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as a strategic vote ‘against’ the role of the military – the sign of a nation simply tired of authoritarian rule.
What is not in dispute is the extent of the NLD’s victory on polling day. The NLD is confirmed to have won 390 out of 664 seats - giving them a majority in both the upper and lower houses of parliament. A majority gained even in spite of twenty five percent (or 166) of those seats being automatically allocated to members of Myanmar’s armed forces.
Thus one of the obvious losers in this election is the previous ruling party, the military supported Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). They will go from holding 388 seats after the 2010 elections (which were boycotted by the NLD) to a paltry 42 in the new parliament. Despite their efforts in recent years to demonstrate governance credibility, the electorate has sent a clear message to the USDP.
The other, perhaps more surprising, aspect of the result has been in ethnic minority areas of the country. Ethnic minority parties were expected to perform well in their own home states, yet in most minority areas it is the NLD who has gained the most seats. For example in Kayin (or Karen) State, ethnic parties only won one out of 33 seats, while the NLD won 26. There was also anticipated to be some backlash against the NLD fostered by radical Buddhist groups such as Ma Ba Tha but this largely failed to materialise. Furthermore, the Ma Ba Tha aligned National Development Party performed poorly.
So it is clear that on voting day the nation overwhelmingly backed the NLD over other potential options - including the status quo stability offered by the USDP, the ethnic platforms of minority parties or even the religious nationalism of National Development Party.
Yet the question remains as to whether this indicates a nation united behind Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. Or was this vote for the NLD simply a vote for change - a vote ‘against’ decades of heavy-handed military rule?
Based on post-election interviews in central Myanmar, Gerard McCarthy from the Australian National University concluded that for many citizens the elections were a ‘referendum on the authoritarian period’. Some voters commented on social media that they did not necessarily know or even like the local NLD candidates but they had still voted for them, wanting ‘change for our people, our country’. In a first past the post system it was clear that a vote for the NLD was the best opportunity to minimise the future influence of the military. A parliament divided between numerous parties – and with a guaranteed twenty five per cent for the armed forces - would have diluted the momentum for change.
These strategic calculations were also likely influential in ethnic minority areas, where the NLD is perceived to be a party aligned with the country’s bamar or Burman ethnic majority. The Economist’s post election analysis suggested that ‘many minority voters made a tactical decision to support the NLD in spite of its Burman roots’. In this sense, a vote for the NLD was also a vote against the military backed status quo.
All this raises questions about whether there is indeed overwhelming trust and support for the NLD. These questions will become important as the NLD begins to face the many challenges of governing a poor and fractured country. How much patience will ethnic minority groups have with the NLD in negotiating peace deals and political settlements? How much patience will civil society activists have as painful compromises are made, and new hydropower dam or special economic zone projects are balanced against social and environmental concerns? How much patience will the vast rural population have if they see little short term improvement in livelihoods and services?
The National League for Democracy’s victory in the elections could hardly have been more emphatic. And despite their efforts to garner support, the Union Solidarity and Development Party received a stunningly clear message from the electorate that it was time for change. Yet whether this was primarily a vote ‘for’ the NLD, or a vote ‘against’ the military is less clear. Myanmar people are looking for a viable alternative to the lost decades of authoritarian rule. The coming months and years will tell us whether the NLD can be that alternative.
Image Credit: Htoo Tay Zar/Wikimedia Commons