Four important questions on Myanmar’s elections

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Myanmar’s upcoming election will be the first genuinely contested poll for 25 years. With little to compare it to in modern times, questions remain over the vote and its likely consequences.

Myanmar citizens will be voting in an election on November 8 that has widely been heralded as historic.

The two main contenders will be the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Here are four important questions heading into the polls:

Q: Why is this election being called historic?

A: The November 8 election will be the first time since 1990 that Suu Kyi’s NLD has contested elections. The party won the 1990 poll, taking 392 of 492 seats, but the army disqualified the results and continued to keep her under house arrest. That was the first election since 1960, two years before military rule.

In 2010 the NLD boycotted fresh elections, leaving the army-backed USDP to win.

If the NLD is able to take power after this weekend’s polls – and all parties accept the result – it will overturn the current military-dominated regime, which is also seen to control Myanmar’s large mineral wealth.

Q: What are the USDP’s and NLD’s platforms?

A: The difference between the two main parties’ campaigns centres on stability and change. The USDP have campaigned relentlessly that theirs is a party for stability and slower, peaceful transition.

“People should vote USDP if they want to keep the situation stable after the election,” said Hla Swe, a former army officer and a sitting member of parliament for the USDP. “We must lead the country at least five more years so that the transition process stays peaceful.”

The NLD meanwhile have been campaigning on a message of transparency and curtailing the power of the military.

“Without reducing military influence step-by-step by reforming the constitution, a federal system can’t be implemented, and peace will not sustainable in ethnic areas,” said Tin Oo, the head of the NLD’s central campaign committee.

Q: Will the election make a difference for Myanmar’s persecuted minorities?

A: Myanmar made international headlines this year when the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority from the western coast, fled the country by the thousands, sparking a regional humanitarian crisis.

Rights groups called the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya, including their restriction to two children, denial of citizenship and internment in makeshift camps, an “ongoing genocide.”

“We are not optimistic that elections will lessen the plight for the Rohingya,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of rights group Fortify Rights.

“Even the NLD have stayed silent on the issue when there is no real pragmatic reason to be silent. It reflects poorly on their leaders.”

The risk of losing popular support may be one reason, with anti-Rohingya sentiment widespread, and part of long-standing tensions with the country’s wider Muslim community, according to the International Crisis Group.

Some of the violence has involved hardline Buddhist monks, while 85 per cent of the population are practising Buddhists.

“The 1.5 million Rohingya will be disenfranchised and not allowed to vote,” said Khin Maung Myint, vice president of the Rohingya-aligned National Democratic Party for Development, which is fielding one candidate.

Q: Will elections have an effect on the economy?

A: Myanmar has dramatically reshaped its economy since 2010, opening up various sectors, including energy and infrastructure development, to direct foreign investment.

However as the November 8 elections draw closer, investors have been holding off.

“There are not too many new faces at the table in the last several months,” said Edward Ratcliffe, a senior associate at the Yangon office of business consultants Vriens and Partners.

Many outside investment firms and aid organizations have put a hold on new investments in Myanmar until after the elections, he said.

“But we think that the overall trend of liberalization of the economy will continue regardless of who wins the elections.”

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