On November 8, more than 37 million voters will be eligible to cast their ballots in Burma‘s general elections. Vying for nearly 1,200 seats nationwide, winning candidates will compete to fill 168 seats in the parliament‘s upper house (Amyotha Hluttaw); 330 seats in the lower house (Pyithyu Hluttaw); and 569 in Burma’s state and regional legislatures (Hluttaws).
These will be the second elections to take place since the country’s first openly contested elections in 2015 and represent another step towards a sustainable democratic transition. Here are three factors could determine whether Burma’s journey to democracy advances or regresses during these elections:
Elections Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Burma is witnessing a surge in COVID-19 cases, pushing the government to roll out revamped stay-at-home orders and impose restrictions on in-person campaigning. Despite the mounting pressure on the leader of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to delay the election, the elections are still planned to take place on November 8. Burma‘s Union Election Commission (UEC) has prepared additional polling stations and implemented physical distancing procedures to ensure voters can safely cast their ballots on Election Day. If the measures taken enable voters to feel safe when going to the polls, it will be a victory in Burma’s journey to democracy. However, the combination of concerns over contracting the virus and a downward trend of political interest since the 2015 elections threaten voter turnout and could signal a regression in the country’s fight for a robust democracy.
Adjusting to Virtual Campaigning
COVID-19 restrictions have stymied the ability of parties and candidates to hold campaign rallies and engage in other in-person constituency outreach activities in the lead up to the elections. To overcome these limitations, parties and candidates have leveraged social media to spread their message and connect with voters. Facebook, the most widely used social media platform in the country and a frequent news source for Burmese voters, has become particularly influential, with many parties investing in ads and page boosting to reach voters. If successful, this expansion onto online platforms could bring more voters into the political process and encourage a more engaged electorate among young people and other social media users.
However, this surge in digital campaigning also presents challenges that threaten political participation, including increased cyberbullying, hate speech and voter intimidation online. Additionally, the quick shift to online campaigning has prevented some parties – particularly those lacking an existing digital infrastructure – from running online ads and verifying their pages, effectively excluding them from the campaigning process. Activities such as IRI‘s social media campaigning workshops for youth and women party members are critical to ensure parties have the capability to conduct issue-focused, virtual constituent outreach during this challenging time.
The Youth Vote
With almost five million first time voters eligible to participate in this year’s election, young people will play an integral role on Election Day and in shaping the country’s future.
Despite the political marginalization challenges hindering youth participation, political parties are increasingly recognizing youth members’ contributions to their communities and their efforts to mobilize the youth vote. Party members played a significant role in supporting the country’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 through participating in disinfecting campaigns, volunteering in quarantine centers, and distributing masks and hand sanitizer. Moreover, Burma’s youth are showing an increased interest in participating politically and leading social media campaigns, demonstrating their ability to play leadership roles in their parties. In response to the mounting demands for inclusive participation of youth, parties are establishing youth wings and committees to increase young people’s political engagement. A huge success for Burma’s democratic progress, political parties must continue to empower young people instead of exacerbating the voter apathy that is common amongst youth.
The conduct of elections on November 8th will be an important indicator of Burma’s democratic trajectory. IRI looks forward to continuing to work with our partners in Burma to fight for the inclusion of all voters in the country’s political process.Top