On November 8th, the citizens of Burma will go to the polls. Over 6,000 candidates are vying for 1,171 parliamentary seats. It is the greatest test yet of the reforms launched by President Thein Sein and the ruling regime four years ago.
Election campaigning began on September 8th, and for the first time in memory, no one knows who will win. That’s a far cry from the last openly-contested general election in 1990, when the opposition National League for Democracy won by a landslide, but the results were never recognized by the sitting government.
Nonetheless, problems remain.
First, in the words of Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, “we all recognize that the political playing field in Burma is not yet an even one.” A number of obstacles are built into the system, preventing a truly democratic process.
For example, the Burmese constitution reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats and key cabinet posts for the military, constitutional restrictions prevent the most prominent opposition politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, from running for president, and legislative restrictions and discrimination prevent some minority ethnic or religious groups from participating as candidates or voters.
During a recent visit to Burma, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes also raised concerns about religion being used as a tool of division during the election period during his recent visit to the country. He noted to the press in Rangoon, “We see a risk of religious expression being inconsistent with a constitution that separates religion and politics, and of course, when that happens, ultimately it can pose a danger to religious minorities.”
These elections will be vitally important for the U.S. relationship with Burma. "The conduct and results of these elections will fundamentally shape our engagement with the Burmese government in 2016 and beyond," said Assistant Secretary Russel.
“Our ability to assist the new Burmese government, let alone to look at relaxation of sanctions … will depend on our assessment of the integrity of the overall process."
So far, the Government of Burma has made a strong effort to improve the administration and transparency of the electoral process. To reinforce this effort, the United States is providing more than $18 million in assistance to conduct the elections.
“The 2015 elections are an important milestone in Burma’s political transition away from dictatorship, but what will be even more critical is that the next government solidifies the political and social gains made and continues to push for additional reform,” said Assistant Secretary Russel.
“The government and people of Burma have an opportunity in this election to demonstrate their commitment to building democratic institutions and processes. If the elections are credible, they can mark a significant step forward.”