Taken from The Straits Times

The parties, voters and issues have undergone major changes since the last elections even if Aung San Suu Kyi remains the anchor of her party’s campaign

While the election campaign has not officially started, it is clear that there is a reorientation in Myanmar politics towards next year’s polls. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and ethnic parties are already developing their campaign strategies and ratcheting up their political engagement.
Myanmar’s 2020 polls will be markedly different from the historic 2015 transition elections. The campaign, political parties and forms of mobilisation are changing as the country grapples with working in a more open, contentious political system. Compared with all the countries in South-east Asia, Myanmar has undergone the most rapid and intensive political, economic and social changes in the last five years. These changes are reshaping politics.

Facebook Election

First, the coming general election will be a Facebook election. An estimated 20 million citizens (or 38 per cent of the population) are on social media, particularly Facebook.
Not only is this medium becoming the norm for sharing political news, concerns about hate speech, fake news and political targeting regularly emerge. Despite pledges by Facebook to monitor hate speech and the removal of key actors, including army commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing whose account was taken down in August last year, the platform serves to intensify sharp differences over religion and promote divisive nationalist agendas.

Multiple United Nations reports have blamed Facebook for inciting violence against the Rohingya. The circulation of emotive religious issues has regularly been used to attack the NLD government and is expected to rise as the election campaign evolves.

The saliency of social media is enhanced, given the large share of young voters. There will be an estimated five million first-time voters, roughly 15 per cent of the electorate, in an already youthful voting population.

These new voters do not connect with the anti-military positioning of the past to the same degree as older generations, as their focus is more on the present economy and the future. Concerns about the environment and political freedoms (or the lack of them) intertwine with those about job opportunities, electricity, education and the rising cost of living.

The China Factor

Myanmar society today is markedly different from what it was five years ago. Citizens have unprecedented access to goods and far greater mobility, as modernity (and traffic) has come with unprecedented speed. Tea shops have given way to cafes, longyi to trousers, and small shops to snazzy malls. Wealth is more on display, and with it comes greater inequality, as more Myanmar citizens are unable to share in the flashy bounty. There is more awareness of comparative exclusion.

There is also more foreign influence, notably from China. Its presence is felt not just around big gas pipeline projects such as Kyaukpyu, but throughout Myanmar. The growing signs of Chinese business interests and land-ownership are fuelling quiet anger.

There is strong public resistance to continued efforts to dam the Mekong River as the controversial Chinese-funded Myitsone dam given to a Chinese developer for the New Yangon City project have also raised serious environmental concerns and provoked protests over land dislocations.
The NLD’s close relationship to China is increasingly a political liability rather than a strength.

The Rohingya Crisis

Younger voters have also been socialised in a period where Myanmar has moved from becoming a beacon of democracy to a serious human rights violator. Last month marked two years since the horrific exodus of the Rohingya from the Rakhine state. Conditions in the Bangladesh camps are worsening as Internet access for refugees was blocked last week. Myanmar’s failure to adequately accept responsibility and offer meaningful solutions has resulted in international condemnation.

For ordinary Myanmar voters, the shift in the country’s international standing has been sobering, as denial and defensiveness have melded with righteous rationalisations. The impact is that although more Myanmar citizens increasingly recognise the negative effects of the Rohingya crisis on the local economy (especially on tourism), there is little political space for leaders to adopt alternative approaches and move towards a more inclusive dialogue, even if there was political will.

For the moment, the NLD is banking on a constitutional reform drive to attract voters. Parliament has put aside other business to focus on 3,700 proposals to change the rigid 2008 Constitution. The main goal is to reduce military power entrenched in the legislature (where it holds 25 per cent of parliamentary seats) and other government institutions.

This drive aims to showcase NLD opposition to the military, as opposed to the acquiescence the party has shown in areas of media criticism and the Rakhine crisis. Stoking anti-military sentiment – a key factor in NLD’s 2015 victory – is unclear, but cooperation has taken hold as more ethnic minorities are vested in gaining electoral power.

Ethnic parties are already asserting more political power in the constitutional reform process, demanding the right to choose their leaders in the state legislature. With a potentially higher number of seats, ethnic parties will play more of a kingmaker role in any constitutional reform and potentially other forms of legislation.

The Tatmadaw’s Troubles

At the same time, the military party’s proxy vehicle, the USDP, is growing weaker. Led by U Than Htay, the party is seen to lack charismatic leadership and be internally divided. Its ousted former leader U Shwe Mann formed his own party in February. The USDP has also yet to come out of the negative shadow of its relationship to the previous regime and is associated with military abuses, particularly corruption and land grabbing. Although it won 30 per cent of the popular vote in 2015, the USDP is heavily reliant on support in military areas.

As the USDP increasingly becomes less of a viable national alternative, it fuels uncertainty as the military no longer has an effective electoral option at a time when it is coming under greater pressure. The Tatmadaw faces international censure for its role in Rakhine, hold on the economy and its reluctance to engage in meaningful reform. Domestically, it is fighting on multiple flanks and taking considerable casualties. Members of its leadership extended their tenures and carried out a reshuffle in May, but this consolidation belies growing internal disgruntlement in adapting to new demands.

NLD’S Challenges

Significant changes are also taking place within the NLD as well. While 2015 was an election for Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, and her persona anchors the upcoming campaign, the NLD is grappling with the question of who will succeed her. The 2020 election is about who will lead the party after her tenure.

Jockeying is already taking place. In February last year, the then No. 2 in command U Win Htein resigned from the NLD. In recent months, many in his faction are being removed from their positions. There is ongoing competition between the Mandalay-based Dr U Zaw Myint Maung and party leaders in Yangon, notably Mr U Nyan Win and Mr U Phyo Min Thein.

Beyond personalities, the NLD is facing the challenge of moving away from leaders who proved their mettle through their struggle against the military, to those with more technocratic skills and better able to connect with a younger electorate. The question of what the NLD stands for beyond the Lady is now more pressing than ever.

As Myanmar heads towards the 2020 polls, the question is not whether the NLD will win – it has a clear advantage in the Bamar seats comprising the electoral majority – but whether the country’s new, more uncertain and demanding terrain will provide for a healthy election.