Waiting for the Myanmar Miracle
Myanmar’s election is a good reminder that authoritarian elites underestimate their political opponents at their peril. “We had a much bigger loss in this election than we expected,” said Htay Oo, the chairman of the former ruling party, after the vote. The active and retired generals who have guided the country’s managed opening over the past five years seem shocked at the fact that the National League for Democracy (NLD) won nearly three-quarters of the votes cast in last Sunday’s elections. The NLD’s success rights a historical wrong; the party won the 1990 elections in similarly decisive fashion, only for the then-ruling military junta to annul the results and place party leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remained for the better part of two decades. If the generals thought their absolute control of the country and its economy since that time would neuter the public’s opposition to their rule, they were mistaken. The question now is whether the generals recognize that they are on a course towards democratic transition that must not be blocked again.
Unfortunately, it is too soon to assume the NLD’s landslide victory will produce a “Myanmar miracle.” Although senior figures from the army-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party, including Speaker of Parliament Shwe Mann and Htay Oo, lost their parliamentary seats, allegations of voting irregularities abound, and many citizens in conflict zones in the north, as well as the ethnic-minority Rohingyas, were not able to vote at all.
More fundamentally, despite its electoral supermajority, the NLD will need to navigate a governing structure still controlled by current and former military officers. Under the terms of a flawed constitution the former junta jammed through in 2008, the military reserves 25 percent of the seats in parliament for itself. This means that the composition of the new government of Myanmar will not reflect the outcome of the elections, because candidates were competing for only 75 percent of parliamentary seats.