YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s ruling party led by Aung San Suu Kyi claimed victory on Monday after a general election seen as a referendum on the first democratic government to lead the country since the end of decades of military rule.
The spokesman for her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) said its unofficial count showed it had won the 322 seats needed to form a new government, though results from the election commission had not been released.
While the reputation of the Nobel laureate has collapsed internationally over disputed allegations of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, she remains beloved at home and massive crowds queued from dawn on Sunday to vote despite fears the coronavirus would dampen the turnout.
Many spoke of the importance of retaining the NLD’s grip on power to counterbalance the influence of the military in politics after half a century of direct rule ended within reforms in 2011, though critics say the party has achieved little to progress the democratic transition.
Despite the emergence of new parties, many still saw the vote as a straight choice between the NLD and the military-backed opposition, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which performed poorly. Nevertheless, the army will remain a dominant force.
Here’s what the election means for Myanmar’s complex political landscape.
THE LADY AND THE GENERALS
Suu Kyi, 75, still known as “Mother Suu”, leads the country as state counselor, a position she will likely retain. She has not indicated a successor.
Critics say she runs her cabinet with an authoritarian streak and has not gone far enough to challenge army abuses.
Despite old tensions over issues including constitutional reform, the ruling party aligned itself with the military on key issues during its first term, including conflict in ethnic areas and the Rohingya crisis.
The ruling party spokesman Myo Nyunt told Reuters the NLD would continue to work “hand in hand” with the army.
Myanmar’s constitution guarantees the army a quarter of seats in parliament and control of key ministries including Home Affairs. It also grants the military an effective veto on any challenges.
While more than 90 political parties competed in the polls, smaller parties including the People’s Pioneer Party, set up by a disillusioned former ally of Suu Kyi, made little impression and said they were hampered by coronavirus restrictions.
The NLD “becoming a giant party with no good oppositions is what worries me the most”, said activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi on Twitter.
Ethnic-based parties did draw votes away in states including Kayah, Mon and Shan states, according to early results reported by media and candidates.
Many people from ethnic minorities feel sidelined by the central government, which is dominated by the Bamar Buddhist majority and has pursued alienating policies including a statue-building campaign depicting Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San.
The first-past-the-post system and internal migration mean ethnic parties receive fewer seats than they would otherwise, risking disillusionment with the democratic process, analysts say.
A key question will be whether the NLD will reach out to ethnic parties for government posts regardless, historian Thant Myint-U said on Twitter.
ROHINGYA AND RAKHINE
One of the country’s gravest challenges is in the western state of Rakhine, where 730,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims fled in 2017 following a military crackdown the United Nations said was executed with genocidal intent.
Myanmar is facing charges of genocide at the Hague, which it denies, saying the campaign was legitimately targeting insurgents who attacked police posts.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are confined to camps and villages where the vast majority are denied citizenship and freedom of movement.
Few were able to vote on Sunday and their plight was not on the agenda of any major party.
The Democracy and Human Rights Party, a Rohingya political party, said the vote illustrated the “normalization” of their exclusion and an “apartheid” system.
Rakhine is also engulfed in a worsening civil conflict between government troops and the Arakan Army, an armed group that recruits mostly from the majority Buddhist Rakhine population.
The majority of residents were unable to vote on Sunday after elections were cancelled with the government citing the fighting.
A Rakhine nationalist party, the Arakan National Party, was expected to win most seats where polls did go ahead.
It scored a sweeping victory in the region in 2015 that failed to translate into significant political power and a similar result this time is likely to give further fuel to the insurgency.
(Reporting by Poppy Elena McPherson; Editing by Nick Macfie)