Suu Kyi readies to win 'Covid election'
Myanmar's ruling party -- the National League for Democracy (NLD) -- is in the final stages of preparing for parliamentary polls scheduled for Nov 8. These elections have taken an unexpected turn, largely as a result of the pandemic sweeping the world. Now, the country's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, appears destined to be returned to power, albeit with a reduced majority.
With a little under four months before Myanmar goes to the polls, it already appears that this is less of an election and more of a "Covid election". The crisis has served Ms Suu Kyi and her NLD very well as it has reinforced the party's essential narrative that she is the saviour of the country and that no one can protect Myanmar and its people as she can. "Covid has changed the landscape of the election," said Nyantha Maw Lin, an independent consultant based in Yangon. "Her use of Facebook is a massive win … it will seal the deal for the elections as there's much less room for anything to happen on the campaign trail, with potential social distancing requirements and other constraints."
The coronavirus has undoubtedly given Myanmar's leader and state counsellor a platform on which to demonstrate her leadership, as well as reassert the effectiveness of civilian government. Mother Suu, as she is affectionately known throughout the country, has used this opportunity to assert her leadership and strengthen her image as "the mother of the nation".
From the very early stages of the Covid-19 crisis in Myanmar, back in March, Ms Suu Kyi has shown strong leadership, reinforced later by the astute use of social media. On Facebook, her lectures and discussions have demonstrated both her command of the situation and her government's. It has left the other political parties flat-footed and bewildered. It has also sidelined the country's military, who are an integral part of the power structure.
"At the forefront of the government's very effective response to Covid, she has done amazingly well. Her arrival on social media is good leadership, good public leadership, which perhaps should have been done years ago," Nyantha Maw Lin told the Bangkok Post. "It's been remarkably effective and it is what people are going to respond to in November.
"[The government's public response to Covid] … has also changed her relationship and engagement with the public. Her social media presence has given her direct feedback from viewers and interviewees, which has often resulted in a direct response. She seems genuinely rejuvenated."
On the face of it, this election will almost be a non-event because the NLD's victory a foregone conclusion but nothing could be further from the truth. It should prove to be a watershed moment for the future of the country's fledgling democracy. It will also be the first real democratic vote in the country, since the previous military leaders stepped down a decade ago and allowed a fragile transition to democracy. More importantly, however, it will be a litmus test of how far the country has come on the path to genuine modernity and political maturity.
Moreover, even if the NLD is odds-on to win, its performance and the election process will be closely scrutinised. The NLD's constituency candidates and the party's electoral strategy will be critical in laying the foundation of good government for the next five years and more importantly, will reflect the country's progress towards genuine democracy.
"The general prediction is that the NLD will win again and I sure hope it does," said Alex Aung Khant, an urban planner, youth leader and NLD member. "But what is less mentioned by observers, scholars and the media is just how much people are talking and discussing it this time around and that is indicative of a population that is very quickly learning how to analyse and debate -- because that is what was missing in 2015.
"The notion that the NLD is going to win, just like 2015, fails to recognise that it's nothing like 2015. It's in fact very different from 2015.
"Election talk started last year -- and even before that in some circles. It's exciting, it's promising and it shows the people are ready for a deeper understanding [of politics]. There's far more analysis and more discussions around candidates, policies, promises and actual performance.
"In 2015 people didn't need so much time to discuss all of this because we were all going to vote for the NLD against the military anyway. Now we have a greater array of parties and we've also had the experience of the past five years."
For the NLD it is the election promises that will be most critical in mobilising the voters at the grassroots level -- aside from the powerful draw of its leader. The manifesto, to be announced next month before campaigning gets under way, will focus on post-Covid economic recovery, livelihoods and infrastructure -- roads and energy reliability, say sources. The peace process and constitutional change will be pushed into the background. "Her message will be on recovery, pushing certain issues that are good NLD issues -- health [possibly promoting universal healthcare] and education," said the source. "This election is no longer a referendum on the NLD government's performance over the last five years, it is more likely to be a public endorsement of the country's civilian leader and her campaign to combat the impact of the coronavirus on the country," said William Maung, an independent financial and business consultant based in Yangon.
Last week NLD spokesman, Monywa Aung Shin, blithely told journalists: "We expected a landslide victory as in 2015." While it may seem certain the NLD is on course for a similar outcome in November, nothing can be taken for granted. Overconfidence may discourage electors from casting their vote because they don't think it matters -- the NLD will win anyway. But the party mandarins certainly understand they still have to energise the electorate if they are to achieve anything like a repeat of 2015.
Thus the biggest danger facing the NLD this time round is voter apathy, a view shared by senior members of the party. "We must get our supporters out and into the polling stations," said Bo Bo Oo, a current NLD MP. A low voter turnout could be to the NLD's disadvantage. These elections are only for 75% of the parliamentary seats -- 25% of the seats are reserved for the military -- the NLD needs to win nearly 70% of the seats up for election to have an absolute majority and form a government in its own right or be forced to form a coalition.
A specialist on Myanmar
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.