Myanmar’s pro-democracy camp has been out in force ahead of a landmark general election due to take place Sunday, with supporters of the country’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gathering in their thousands at a final, massive rally in the largest city, Yangon.
Decked in the red of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, adoring supporters crammed the streets and filled a stadium to listen to the Nobel laureate and former political prisoner speak.
“Some people say ‘it’s not time for us to achieve real democracy yet,'” Suu Kyi told the crowd.
“But I think its just because they don’t want to give it to us,” Suu Kyi continued, to thunderous applause. “Everyone deserves democracy.”
Thein Sein, the incumbent president, has been quoted as saying there was no need of further change in the country’s political process, which is still dominated by the country’s military and bars Suu Kyi from becoming president.
Freest election in a quarter-century
The election, slated for November 8, is due to be the freest since 1990, when the first multi-party election in decades was held.
While the NLD convincingly won that election, the military junta in charge of the country refused to recognize the result.
While the military-dominated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) still rules Myanmar, also known as Burma, under Thein Sein it has been pushing through expansive political and economic reforms since 2011, bringing the country out of decades of authoritarian rule and international isolation.
While Sunday’s vote is widely expected to bring about a far more representative government, there are still checks on the electoral process, and key ministries, including defense, home affairs and border affairs, are still under the remit of the military.
The military-drafted constitution — which also bars Suu Kyi from becoming president — guarantees a quarter of seats in the Hluttaw, Myanmar’s parliament, to unelected military representatives. These members also have an effective veto over any proposed constitutional change.
Pivotal, but far from perfect
After decades of sanctions and isolation, the Obama administration embarked on a dramatic shift in policy with the new Myanmar government, re-establishing diplomatic ties with the appointment of an ambassador in Yangon in 2012, as part of an initiative described as a “partnership to advance democratic reform.”
However, within government circles there remains a degree of skepticism towards next week’s vote.
“This is not going to be a high quality election,” a senior US government official told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The process is going to be fraught… it is slanted toward the ruling elite.”
Meanwhile, London-based policy institute Chatham House says the “pivotal” election is one step in the democratization of the country.
“Myanmar’s transition from military rule to democracy is far from complete, and its successes to date remain fragile,” a report by the institute says.
“Given the chronic inertia and isolation of the previous half-century, there has been remarkable progress since 2011. But more work is needed to consolidate democracy, improve governance and promote stability.”
Electioneering has so far been marred by violence and acrimony, culminating in a machete attack on Naing Ngan Lin, a NLD candidate who vowed to continue despite the intimidation.
The U.N Secretary-General, Ban Kee-Moon, released a statement Sunday expressing concern at the rancor that has so far characterized the campaign.
The Secretary-General “urges all concerned in Myanmar to eschew any kind of pressure, intimidation, dissemination of hatred or violence against individuals or organizations based on their ethnic identity, gender, religious persuasion or political views,” said a statement issued by Ban’s spokesperson.
Will Suu Kyi run for president?
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Suu Kyi — a national hero who spent nearly 15 years under house arrest — is overwhelmingly her country’s most popular politician.
Under the country’s military-drafted constitution, she is barred from the presidency, due to a rule prohibiting anyone with foreign family members from assuming top office. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, and her two sons have British passports.
“The NLD will contest the election but the prospect of (Suu Kyi) becoming the president is almost zero,” Aung Zaw, editor of influential Burmese news magazine the Irrawaddy told CNN.
The president is not directly elected by the public, but chosen by MPs following the vote. Suu Kyi will stand as an MP, and has hinted as a civilian candidate to put forward for the role.
How will the NLD fare?
Scores of political parties are contesting the vote. But the ruling USDP of President Thein Sein will be the NLD’s major rival.
The NLD boycotted polls in 2010 in protest at rules that barred Suu Kyi, still locked up at the time, from running. But the party dominated subsequent by-elections in 2012.
“If the election is free and fair, the NLD is going to win the majority of votes,” said Zaw. “But it is doubtful that they will be able to form the government.”
MPs recently voted down a proposal to remove the military’s veto power on constitutional amendments.
“I think we have to look at post-election,” Zaw said.
“There will be intense political negotiation among parties. The country (could) face indefinite political stalemate.”
What’s at stake?
Myanmar’s sudden transition towards democracy from decades of international isolation has been welcomed by the international community. But in recent years, fears have grown that this nation of about 51 million has been backsliding on its reforms.
The makeup of the next government will determine how the country goes about tackling longstanding issues, and the pace with which it pursues a reform agenda.
The ethnically diverse, resource-rich country faces a raft of issues, including long-simmering conflicts with ethnic minorities in its border regions — most notably the stateless Rohingya Muslims of the western state of Rakhine, whose suffering has fueled the southeast Asian migrant crisis.