Milestone for a small nation: a brief guide to Burma’s election

Vote is milestone in transformation from military dictatorship to more open society

On Sunday, more than 30 million voters across Burma (Myanmar) can cast their ballots in the country's first relatively free elections in 25 years. The nationwide vote is a milestone in the southeast Asian nation's transformation from isolated military dictatorship to a more open society, seeking to attract foreign investment and tourists.

Moreover, it will be a crucial test of the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and democracy icon who is believed to be the country's most popular politician. Suu Kyi, who was held under house arrest for 15 years during military rule, hopes a strong victory at the polls could finally give her party political power even though she is barred from becoming president.

Why is this election important?

In the last national election, in May 1990, voters’ overwhelming preference for the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Suu Kyi, was met by a brutal crackdown and two decades of harsh military rule. Now, her party is running against representatives of the former military junta.

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The military-aligned party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party led by president Thein Sein, has campaigned on its record of running the government the last five years and a promise to guarantee stability. Suu Kyi's campaign has centred on strengthening the rule of law. The new government will inherit immense problems: sectarian violence, fighting with ethnic militias, rampant cronyism and corruption, and inadequate infrastructure and financial institutions to attract foreign investment. Some parts of the country are controlled by ethnic militias, and several of Burma's leading exports, including jade, opium and timber, have been tied to conflict, crime and corruption.

Why can’t Suu Kyi become president?

Burma's military rulers, concerned that Suu Kyi's popularity could threaten their hold on power, introduced a new constitution in 2008 that in effect bars her from holding the highest offices in the country. Article 59 says that anyone married to a foreign citizen or whose children are foreigners cannot become president or vice president. Suu Kyi was married to British historian Michael Aris, who died in 1999. Her two sons are British citizens. But Suu Kyi has said that if her party wins, she will run the government.

How does the election work?

Voters will choose three-quarters of the representatives to the country’s two houses of parliament. The remainder will be appointed by the armed forces. The two houses of parliament and the military then each will nominate one candidate for the presidency. The two houses will hold a joint vote to choose the president. The runners-up will serve as vice presidents.

How much influence does the military have?

The military appoints a quarter of all lawmakers, one of the three nominees for president, the powerful home minister, the defence minister and the minister of border affairs.

Suu Kyi has said that if her party wins, it would begin the process of changing the constitution, hoping to make her eligible to become president and strip the military of its political powers. The current constitution gives the military a veto over proposed amendments.

Will Burma’s ethnic minorities be able to vote?

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, have been excluded from voter lists this year amid a wider government-led effort to disenfranchise them. Ethnic militias controlling large swaths of territory near Burma's eastern border with China and northern Thailand rejected a last-minute ceasefire agreement in October. – (New York Times)