Another Election Milestone for Burma, but Concerns Remain

  • Kyaw Zeyar Win

On November 8, citizens of Burma took to the polls in the country’s third general election since its transition to democracy in 2010. Despite the generally well-run election, Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) has faced sharp criticism regarding the lack of transparency in its decision-making processes and the perceived disenfranchisement of nearly 1.5 million of Burma’s 37 million registered voters. This comes in addition to the 600,000 or so Rohingya who have been excluded from the electoral process since the 2015 elections. Below are a few points of improvement, as well as some persistent issues present in Burma’s November 8 elections.

Voter turnout increased in this year’s elections, as did inclusivity in two key areas.

According to preliminary findings, voter turnout for Burma’s general elections reached an estimated 71 percent last week – a high percentage given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a slight increase from the 2015 general elections, which drew participation from 69.77 percent of the public. In addition to the high turnout, this election saw both the first three candidates with disabilities vie for seats in North Okkalapa, Twantay and Bago, and the first openly gay politician to run for office in Mandalay’s Aungmyaythazan township. Persons with disabilities (PWD) make up about 12.8 percent of Burma’s population and according to the state and regional election sub-commission, more than 84,000 PWDs are eligible to vote. Their increased involvement in Burma’s election was an impressive feat in the country’s journey to inclusivity.

Though gains were made in the participation of women and youth, their overall inclusion in the electoral process remained low.

Making up two-thirds of polling station officials and 16 percent of candidates, women’s participation in Burma’s November 8 elections increased compared to the 13 percent of women candidates in the 2015 elections. Initial findings of Phan Tee Eain indicate that women will constitute 17 percent of the new Parliament, a significant increase over the previous Parliament. However, although the number of women running for office increased, the overall percentage remains low. Since February 2016, Burma’s proportion of women in national politics has ranked amongst the bottom 20 percent of nations globally, coming in at 154 out of 191 countries. Though prominent political party chairwomen have forged a path to increased female political involvement, the government must do more to build upon the example they have set.

In terms of youth participation, of the total 5,639 candidates who participated in the November elections, 805 were under the age of 35. In addition, an estimated five million new voters were eligible to vote for the first time and the results show that 98 out of 1,117 seats were won by youth candidates. However, though major political parties incorporated high percentages of youth leaders ahead of the November elections, their decision-making power within the parties remains limited. Often relegated to brand ambassadors for the party, there remain concerns about whether youth leaders will be empowered to fully serve the interests of the constituency they represent.

At the International Republican Institute (IRI), we believe that political parties are strengthened by the inclusion of marginalized voices, as evidenced by our leadership training program meant to cement women and youth participation in Burma’s democracy. To that end, IRI workshops equip women and youth party members with skills in campaign management, digital storytelling, public speaking, etc. With over half of the country’s population under the age of 30, it is critical that political parties empower youth to represent their generational cohort and become future democratic leaders. Likewise, consolidating Burma’s democratic gains since 2010 will require a consistent increase in women candidates running for office going forward.

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