Myanmar Campaign Ends as Voters Weigh Choices in Historic Voteby
Opposition party seen as having best chance in ballot
Next government will need to continue economic reforms
Myanmar’s campaign has ended and voters head to the polls Nov. 8 for the nation’s most important election since 1990, when military rulers refused to hand power to the victors. The generals loosened their grip in 2010, allowing a vote that was easily won by their political arm because the main opposition boycotted the poll.
The new government launched a series of economic and political reforms that has led to a flood of foreign investment and some of the most sustained economic growth in Southeast Asia. Still, critics say there is much work that remains to be done before the country can be considered a full-fledged democracy.
Here’s what’s at stake in the vote:
Annual growth has averaged more than 7 percent since the 2010 election, helped by foreign investment that financed infrastructure and boosted low-cost manufacturing, alongside an increase in tourism. The Asian Development Bank sees the economy expanding 8.3 percent this year and close to that in 2016. That’s off a low base, though, and per capita income was $1,198 last year -- about a fifth of neighboring Thailand. The key is whether the country remains stable after the vote and the next government
can continue the reform process.
The end of direct military rule opened Myanmar to the outside world. Foreign investment rose tenfold to $4.1 billion between 2009 and 2014, according to Chatham House. While companies from Total SA to Telenor ASA to Coca-Cola Co. poured in, uncertainty about investment rules, the poor condition of infrastructure and concern about the political situation have damped some enthusiasm. A free, fair and stable election will help revive interest and both major parties have said they will make a priority of passing a revamped investment law that aims to remove some of the barriers faced by foreign companies.
About 30 million of Myanmar’s 52 million people will be eligible to vote for three quarters of the 664 seats in the two houses of the legislature. The remaining 25 percent are reserved for military-backed candidates. The new legislature then elects the president, with the two chambers of parliament each proposing a candidate and a third offered by the military. The final decision on the new president isn’t likely to take place until early next year.
The opposition National League for Democracy is seen as having the best chance of winning due in large part to the popularity of its leader, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Still, Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from becoming president and her ability to influence the selection of the next president is limited by the power of the military, which will hold a quarter of the seats in each house of the legislature.
President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party has guided Myanmar’s opening since the junta was officially dissolved in 2011, though its close ties to the military have sapped its popular support. It’s possible that neither major party wins enough seats on its own and will need to turn to smaller parties to form a government. The risk is that the vote is marred by allegations of irregularities or that the military isn’t satisfied with the result, leading to further intervention in politics.
Myanmar shares a border of more than 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) with China and a frontier of about 1,500 kilometers with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees Myanmar as India’s economic gateway to Southeast Asia and made the country a focus of his “Act East” policy. His government has agreed to reduce port duties to boost shipping across the Bay of Bengal and backed a plan for trans-national highways and railways that would pass through Myanmar to Thailand and markets beyond.
For China, the country is a key part of President Xi Jinping’s effort to rebuild ancient trade routes to Europe and offers a way to reduce China’s dependence on oil shipped through the Strait of Malacca. China has already financed construction of a natural gas pipeline and oil pipeline that span the country, linking China’s Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal, where it can load oil and gas from the Middle East. The next government may welcome official investment but will also need to juggle between the efforts of the two Asia powers, alongside the U.S. and smaller neighbors like Thailand, for influence alongside money.
Many of the country’s more than 1 million ethnic Rohingya -- who are effectively stateless -- are denied the right to vote. The Rohingya and other Muslims have been marginalized by the government and targeted by militant Buddhists. The country has faced armed ethnic insurgencies for decades. While the government has sponsored peace talks, only eight militant groups signed a cease-fire agreement this month. Seven others that were part of the talks, including the two largest groups, refused to sign a final accord. Sporadic violence, particularly near porous border areas, has sparked tensions with China and India. The next government will face the task of trying to bring other armed ethnic groups into the mainstream fold.