A polling station used for Myanmar election 2015. The ballot boxes are at the front, while the voting booths are at the rear. Photo and caption by Phyo WP (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Myanmar’s general election took place on November 8. Around 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties competed for 1,171 legislative seats.

There were initial concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to a voting postponement or cancellation, but overseas and early voting have commenced and preparations for election day are already in full swing.

Observers note that the election is crucial to the consolidation of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The country was ruled by a military dictatorship for several decades until it adopted reforms which allowed a civilian government to take control in 2011. However, the 2008 Constitution guaranteed parliament seats and other bureaucratic posts for the military, allowing it to retain influence in the government.

During the historic 2015 election, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) defeated the military-backed party. The landslide victory of the NLD raised expectations that the new government would undertake political and social reforms.

In the 2020 election, will the NLD retain its overwhelming majority in the parliament? Or will the military and the military-backed party gain more seats?

A major issue is the disenfranchisement of voters in largely ethnic communities. The Union Election Commission (UEC) has cancelled voting in 56 townships, citing security risks, rendering an estimated 1.4 million people unable to vote. Some have raised questions about the impartiality of the UEC, which has also been criticized for censoring the speeches of parties wishing to broadcast campaign messages on state TV and radio networks.

In addition to the cancellation of voting in communities experiencing conflict, 600,000 Rohingya have been unable to register to vote as they are not officially recognized as one of the country’s ethnic groups. Rohingya candidates were also disqualified from contesting seats in the election.

The NLD government has been accused of using laws drafted by the military dictatorship to silence critics and persecute activists protesting the internet shutdown in the state of Rakhine, the human rights atrocities allegedly committed by soldiers against ethnic communities, and the failure to uplift the conditions of the poor.

As candidates and parties increasingly turn to the internet to reach out voters during the pandemic lockdown, various groups are monitoring the use of social media and working to prevent the spread of disinformation and hate speech.

Myanmar faces numerous challenges in ensuring that this election will be free, fair, peaceful, and credible. But what is certain is that whatever happens on November 8 will have a lasting impact on the future of the country’s democracy.

Stories about Myanmar elections 2020