Most every city on earth is festooned with ads promoting one mobile phone service or another. Until recently, Yangon (Rangoon) was an exception. But today, brand new, bright red umbrellas emblazoned with the logo of Ooredoo shade curbside food stalls, while blue placards advertise the sale of Telenor top-up cards from nearly every storefront.
The two international mobile operators both launched in Myanmar (Burma) last month, and for the first time, connectivity is available to a wide swath of citizens. Not long ago, a SIM card for the government-run NPT mobile network (the only option available) cost upward of $1000 USD. Now, with the opening of the market, a SIM card costs $1.50—on par with other countries in the region.
This progress is the latest and perhaps most obvious hallmark of Myanmar’s much celebrated opening, which began in 2010 with the release of many political prisoners including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Few of the reforms are irreversible, however, and with elections scheduled for late next year, how the next year plays out will determine whether this country continues down the road to democracy or reverts to military authoritarianism.
Myanmar last held national elections in 2010, but the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s primary opposition party, declined to participate because of hopelessly unjust electoral laws and predictable fraud. Not surprisingly, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Myanmar’s military-linked ruling party, won nearly every seat in parliament.
Between 2010 and 2012, however, the government changed electoral law, permitting former political prisoners among the NLD ranks to run for office. When by-elections were held in 2012, the NLD accepted the opportunity to contest the elections, and won 43 of 46 open seats. The party, led by Suu Kyi herself, now constitutes a vocal minority in parliament, and NLD leaders expect a similarly sweeping victory next year—if the election process is fair.
But the USDP also sees—and fears—the possibility of an NLD sweep. In a recent conversation, U Tin Aye, the chairman of the Union Election Commission (UEC), the government body responsible for administering the elections, tellingly cited “Middle Eastern countries” as a cautionary tale of what Myanmar could become if it transitioned too quickly. Instead, he touted the country’s model of “guided democracy” as a necessary step toward “free democracy.”
Despite U Tin Aye’s ideological affinity with the ruling party, the UEC seems committed to administer a transparent and credible election. The body has already made improvements to regulations around advance voting, which was used in the past as a mechanism for fraud, and has begun the onerous task of compiling the country’s myriad township and village voter rolls into a single, national voter list. And when President U Thein Sein floated the possibility in early October of postponing the elections—an apparent ploy to advantage the USDP—U Tin Aye spoke out days later, committing to an election date in late 2015, and denouncing any postponement as unconstitutional.
With the UEC committed to openness and so much international attention on the elections, outright fraud will be difficult and unlikely in 2015. This has left the USDP seeking other ways to forestall a sudden NLD accession to power. Their latest gambit is a proposed change to the country’s electoral system.
Like the United States, Myanmar currently has a first-past-the-post system (FPTP), in which the top vote getter in each district wins the seat. But House Speaker Shwe Mann has called for proposals to shift the country to a complicated version of a proportional system, under which seats would be awarded based on the overall proportion of the vote received. This new system is evidently crafted to minimize gains by the NLD, which, based on the evidence from 2012, would likely win a plurality or narrow majority of votes in most districts. Under a proportional system, the same voting patterns would yield much more evenly split results.
And already, the cards are stacked in favor of the USDP. Under the current constitution, 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for military officers, who vote as a bloc. The USDP only need win one-third of the contested seats to form a governing coalition with the military.
Machinations aside, the USDP is also engaged in good old-fashioned political communication, campaigning on the economic progress their reforms have allowed. The advent of cheap mobile phone service is a part of this, as are the new jobs brought by foreign investment, and new roads linking Myanmar’s far flung villages to the heart of the country. It’s a familiar platform of economic development, and it is tied to the USDP’s more implicit campaign promise of security and stability. The party questions the NLD’s readiness to rule, and seems to imply that an outright NLD victory—too much change too soon—might necessitate another military coup.
Having spent over 25 years as an opposition party, the NLD does lack governing experience and cannot run on its accomplishments. But in a recent conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi, she seemed confident that Myanmar’s citizens are sufficiently motivated by political issues that the NLD would be successful campaigning on its platform of constitutional change. To most voters, Suu Kyi is herself both candidate and platform. Personality politics rule in Myanmar, and many votes the NLD receives next year will be cast in support of her, more than any policy proposals the party puts forward.
President Obama will be in Myanmar next week for the ASEAN and East Asian Summits, and he will meet with both President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi has lately been critical of the Obama Administration, accusing the U.S. of being “too optimistic” about the reform process. Realistically, few international observers expect a truly “free and fair” election next year; most are engaged in the process anyway, working toward an election that, even if flawed, yields results that can be accepted by all parties and generates a government that can continue the country’s progress down the road to democracy. With powerful political forces still tugging Myanmar in different directions, this kind of halting progress may be the best we can reasonably hope for.