After the Covid election

After the Covid election

Armed with an even bigger mandate than before, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party need to map out a robust pandemic recovery plan.

Myanmar's "Covid election" has dominated the local psyche for more than a month now. The coronavirus crisis changed the nature of campaigning for the Nov 8 polls, severely affected the voting process and delayed the second stage of the government's pandemic recovery plans. While everyone was preoccupied with the polls, the country was virtually on hold.

The overwhelming victory of the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) -- led by Aung San Suu Kyi -- heralds a new era of reform and recovery. The NLD now has a reinforced political mandate and a strengthened moral authority to press on with its plans for national reconciliation, including constitutional reform, sustained growth and inclusive development, according to analysts and commentators.

But the shadow of the pandemic still hangs over the country and dominates all political and economic considerations.

"Myanmar cannot escape its Covid conundrum," said William Maung, an independent business and financial consultant based in Yangon. It affected the campaign process -- especially as it limited the public exposure of new pro-democracy parties that did not exist in the last vote in 2015. "All those newly established parties were unable to convince Myanmar citizens that they had the ability, experience and ideas to lead the country effectively," he said.

The newcomers include the Peoples' Pioneer Party led by the prominent businesswoman and NLD defector Thet Thet Khine, the People's Party led by some "88 Generation" activists, and the Union Betterment Party led by former general and former parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann.

All these parties, along with the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), complained that the Covid crisis gave an edge to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, by virtue of their being in government and controlling the Covid response.

Myanmar was relatively unscathed during the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, recording only around 800 infections up to the end of August. But cases then started surging, and as of last Thursday had reached 64,400 with 1,480 deaths. New daily cases peaked on Oct 12 and have eased off slightly since then.

"During the Covid, the general public looked to the government for leadership and Aung San Suu Kyi especially has been very active in reaching out to the public through her online discussions on social media with key stakeholders including members of the public," said Zeya Thu, a renowned local commentator and CEO of the Voice magazine.

"This obviously affected the running and outcome of the election," he told Asia Focus in an email interview.

STRONG TURNOUT

Despite the challenging circumstances and fear of Covid, voter turnout topped 70% and was slightly higher than five years ago.

"I am going to vote though I'm not eager to go to the polling station because of the health risks of Covid," Yan Naing Tun, a gold store owner in a town near Mandalay, told Asia Focus. At least half of the 40 voters interviewed before the polls opened or after they had voted said they had been worried about infection risk, but that it did not deter them in the end.

The government lifted some travel restrictions on the eve of the polls to allow people to vote, and strict precautions were put in place. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had resisted calls for a delay from some quarters, also assured the public that it was safe to vote.

The public responded: some were even impressed by the preparations. "The election officials provided free N-95 masks and hand sanitiser to help protect voters against Covid-19," said Su Su Zaw, a 19-year-old university student in Mandalay. "Also, they upgraded the security inside the polling booths."

Across the country, people queued patiently and peacefully -- sometimes for up to two hours in the hot sun -- to mark their ballot papers. It was a slow process as only one voter at a time was allowed in the polling station. Outside, however, was a different story.

"There was no big issue when I voted, but I must point out that when we lined up in our constituency, the voters were not even six feet apart from one person to another," complained Lin Myat, a 19-year-old student and first-time voter in Yangon.

Observers believe one of the main reasons the high turnout was that first-time voters -- more than 5 million across the country -- were very keen. This was particularly obvious in Yangon, which has been one of the country's Covid hot spots.

Asia Focus spoke with two ethnic first-time voters at a Yangon polling station who submitted absentee ballots because they could not return to their home regions to vote because of Covid travel restrictions.

Nant Inngjin Marn, a Karen artist and presenter, and Than Zaw Aung, a Mon flight attendant, said they wanted a leader who could really manage the country.

"That's why we weren't deterred by the risk of Covid and voted for Aung San Suu Kyi as she can do the best for this country and especially unite our ethnic minorities. We look forward to a brighter future, under her, and achieving peace and development throughout the country," they said.

Official results released last Friday by the Union Election Commission (UEC) confirmed the NLD party had secured an absolute majority with 346 seats in both houses of parliament, well over the 322 it needed to form a government.

Up for grabs were 476 of the combined 664 seats in the upper and lower houses because 166 seats, or 25%, are set aside for military appointees.

Voting for 22 seats in ethnic areas was cancelled, ostensibly for security reasons.

The USDP, which won just 25 seats, maintains that the vote was neither free nor fair. It is demanding that the UEC step down and the polls be restaged.

But even if some results were overturned, "the NLD landslide is so large that they wouldn't alter the overall outcome", Richard Horsey from the International Crisis Group told AFP on Friday.

Observers have widely concluded that voting took place smoothly on the actual polling day, despite forecasts of a low turnout.

Despite "some discrepancies … it was peaceful and smooth", said Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, head of the People's Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), the largest local monitoring organisation.

"The problems originated in the pre-election period."

But rights groups condemned what they described as the election commission's lack of transparency and its cancellation of voting in some ethnic minority areas.

The move left 1.5 million voters disenfranchised and sparked grievances in already restive areas that the playing field had been tilted in favour of the NLD.

The UEC defended its procedures. "This election was transparent," said spokesman Myint Naing. "We had no bias. … It was conducted fairly, within the law."

RECOVERY AGENDA

Tackling the devastation caused to the economy by the pandemic will top the agenda of the new NLD-led government. Unemployment has skyrocketed, many factories are closed and the country's poor are sinking further into debt and poverty.

"Obviously the focus now should be on the economy which has taken a beating for most of 2020 because of Covid," said journalist Zaya Thu. "Many small and medium businesses are nearing collapse and poverty is worsening daily.

"As it worsens, the viability of the democratisation process is endangered. However, on the upside the victory of ruling party and the probable continuity of policy will provide some certainty to local and foreign businesses."

The next NLD administration has a clear mandate to push ahead with its reform agenda, increasing economic liberalisation, inclusive development and trying to end continuing civil strife. There are high expectations -- as there were after the NLD victory in 2015 -- that must be met more effectively than during its first term in office.

The business community in particular will be demanding a significant change in the government's approach. It wants ministers and public servants to learn from the failures of the last few years and build on the successes.

But there is something of a hiatus now, as parliament is in recess until the newly elected MPs gather at the end of January to elect parliamentary speakers and start the electoral college process to elect a new president. In the meantime there is an administrative lull until the new cabinet -- as well as state and regional administrations -- are formed at the end of March.

Most of the voters interviewed by Asia Focus mentioned the need for more sustained economic growth and job creation.

"The government must tackle economic growth after Covid and provide immediate assistance for those families who are already struggling because of the pandemic," said Myo Thwin Ko, a 30-year-old operations manager in Mandalay.

Ei Mon Mon Kyaw a 25-year-old resident of Tutuputlut village in the Ayeyarwady region, also stressed the need for the government to improve the economy, create job opportunities and support farmers more effectively.

"The new NLD-led government will undoubtedly make the Covid-borne economic downturn its top priority when it takes office," said Ko Ko Kyi, a 35-year-old post-graduate in public policy from Chiang Mai University. "The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the situation of the poor, deepening their poverty. Myanmar is no exception.

"Therefore, the new regional and national governments will have to desperately focus on reviving economic growth at all social levels," he told Asia Focus.

"The world is currently talking about creating a more sustainable and fairer economic environment beyond the Covid-19 era. So the next civilian government can't afford to ignore the need to create fairer and sustainable economic growth in the new normal. At the same time, the new government must formulate a clear and stronger economic policy on how to restructure and change from unhealthy crony capitalism to a fairer more, transparent economic system in Myanmar in the near future."

The business community is keen to be involved in any policy discussions and assist where possible. In the past the government often was not aware of the reality on the ground, according to Thu Zaw, the CEO of Sithar, a local coffee producer and exporter.

"Many business interests and lobbies have been submerged and the top (government) leadership was not getting the real picture from the grassroots," he told Asia Focus. "There needs to be a proper channel to monitor the grassroots and the effects of policies. Many reforms will certainly need the private sector, so bridging the private sector with the public sector, must also be a priority."

"The priority should be to resuscitate SMEs. Many are already in the 'cemetery'. But the ones in the ICU may need life-saving drugs. Identify them impartially. Revive them," suggested Dr Maung Maung Lay, vice-president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. "Seek assistance from financial institutions or investors abroad. Even tap cheap loans like in the old days."

Executives agree the government needs to adopt a more pro-business approach. "The government must develop a friendly environment for investors, enabling the business sector -- both local and international -- both large corporations and SMEs," said Dr Zaw Naing, the CEO of Mandalay Technology.

"This means developing the country's infrastructure. This includes the physical infrastructure, like electricity and connectivity -- roads, rail, waterways, and so on -- social infrastructure -- healthcare, education, social safety nets, and so on -- human resource infrastructure -- a skilled workforce, a professional workforce, and so on -- and legal infrastructure, like making sure laws, rules and regulations are in place."

Many voters interviewed by Asia Focus identified similar needs which they believe require urgent attention. "Economic recovery and the development of the education and healthcare sectors should be of immediate concern," said Khin Kyi Kyi, a training consultant.

The education system needs a drastic overhaul if the Myanmar economy is to develop, said Thandar, a project manager for a local organisation in Kalaw in Shan state.

"Since our country changed to a democracy in 2010, I haven't seen any significant progress in the education sector," she told Asia Focus. "The quality of the government schools is still appalling and anachronistic. We can't build a country without proper human resources."

Government insiders have hinted that major changes are in the pipeline but that the first priority will be initiating an economic recovery plan, on which economic reforms and sustainable development will be firmly based.

"The government is committed to building a resilient economy during and in the wake of the pandemic," said Sean Turnell, an Australian economist and special adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi.

"This will include expanded expenditure on health, infrastructure -- both for long-term economic development, as well as counter-Covid stimulus -- and then a range of liberalising measures deigned to make doing business easier and to encourage foreign investment," he told Asia Focus in an email interview.

However, some commentators caution against expecting too much. "There might not be many radical policy changes in the pipeline as the government might regard its landslide victory in this election as the people's approval of its policies during the previous five years," warned commentator Zeya Thu.

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