Nadi Hlaing (Rakhapura) | DMG

How Arakanese political parties select their candidates is one of the interesting topics to consider following the announcement this month that Myanmar’s third general election since adoption of the 2008 Constitution will be held on November 8.

Most Arakanese people fulfilled their national duty and turned out at the polls in the 2010 and 2015 general elections, but a question is raised in my mind today whether lawmakers from Arakanese political parties have dutifully reciprocated the trust placed in them by the voters.

Most Arakanese voted for Arakanese political parties and sent those parties’ candidates into the political arena as lawmakers and representatives of the people. This time around, Arakanese people will have to think about what those politicians have done for Arakan State since taking office, as they weigh their choices for the 2020 election.

In the 2015 election, the Arakan National Party (ANP) won a majority of elected seats in the Arakan State parliament, but it could not form the state government because of the centralisation of power ingrained in the Constitution. 

Within the ANP, ostensible unity in the lead-up to the 2015 vote gave way to internal divisions and fragmentation in the post-election period, as one party became three with the formations of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) and the Arakan Front Party (AFP).

It is this fracturing that has been at the heart of Arakanese political parties’ inability to work significantly for the development of Arakan State and its people.

Since early this year, a new phrase has grown popular among tea shop patrons: “A businessman becomes rich after working his whole life,” it goes, “but a politician can become rich within his term.” 

In other words, there is a growing sense of disillusionment among voters.

The Arakan State government that took office after the 2015 election is not seen as making significant changes in the state, including much-needed regional development.

Even more alarming, it has tacitly or actively presided over an increase in politically motivated charges brought against activists and ordinary citizens alike in recent years. 

The number of legally dubious cases brought under various charges in Arakan State during the rule of the National League for Democracy (NLD) — which has touted its claim to being a genuine civilian government — is higher than under the military-backed U Thein Sein administration. Most lawmakers though have remained mostly silent so far as arbitrary detentions, civilian deaths amid conflict and other human rights violations have continued to climb. 

It is certain that these situations will recur and will pose a big challenge for politicians who will be elected in the coming vote.

Myanmar’s major national parties — the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the NLD — are arguably weakest in Arakan State, and neither is expected to win majorities in the state. 

However, Arakanese political parties are not likely to win in Gwa and Thandwe townships in the 2020 election because they are not found doing party organising activities in these areas.

The ANP is not likely to perform as strongly as it did in 2015, given the ALD and AFP offshoots that are now also competing for votes.

The AFP seems to be hobbled to some extent because Dr. Aye Maung, who has a solid base of public support in Arakan State, is in prison and unable to contest. Still, the party is sure to perform well in some places thanks to that support for Dr. Aye Maung and the party he is now affiliated with. 

For the ALD, it will face difficulty viably contesting various constituencies, with support held back by a perception among some voters that the party is too close to the NLD.

As for the ANP, while it still stands a chance at winning a majority of seats, the campaign season could get nasty and it is difficult to know how that might play out. Multiple controversies have dogged the party since its 2015 showing, including acrimonious resignations of some prominent members, and equally contentious ousters.

Under such conditions, Arakanese people might find themselves unsatisfied with any of the political parties claiming to represent their interests this year. Incumbent lawmakers’ unimpressive records in office have left people disappointed.

Furthermore, Arakanese political parties have failed to build systematic organisational infrastructure with strong policies, despite some of their politicians having two previous elections and years of political experience under their belt. 

Regarding regional development, there is currently no clear sector-by-sector platform governing policies on the economy, natural resources and the environment, education, health, social affairs or land. Therefore, we cannot decide to vote in the 2020 election by thinking only of nationalism, as was the case for many in the 2015 election. 

Five years ago, Arakanese people did not have as many political parties to choose from. This time, they have more political choice, but most Arakanese people are lacking interest in the electoral process at the moment.

To be sure, Arakanese people will not lavish votes on a single political party as in 2015, and turnout may be down significantly without a strong pitch from one or more of the parties and their candidates in the months to come. 

Many Arakanese people have lost faith that their federal dreams will come true through elections and political parties. At the moment, the most disillusioned Arakanese people believe that only the Arakan Army, which has strong public support, can bring about the change they want to see.

So political parties need to grow up, and be a facilitating force for the maturation of Myanmar’s democracy. 

Reforms that ethnic people want have not been seen under the NLD government, which many ethnic people also supported in 2015. The NLD and other political parties that are not “ethnic” may face the consequences of this at the ballot box in ethnic areas this November, especially in Arakan State.

Among other possible reconfigurations to the balance of power in Arakan State and beyond during the post-election period and early days of the administration sworn in next year: An NLD-led Union government may try to further centralise its authority in the face of diminished majorities in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and state and regional legislatures, by appointing nominal state governments while giving most power to the Ministry of Border Affairs and other security-related portfolios.

It is difficult to predict Myanmar’s political fate at the moment. In such a situation, candidates should be adept at all-around sectoral governance so that they can well manage the future of Arakan State if given the chance to do so.

The people will see very soon how and by which standards Arakanese political parties select their candidates, as well as what policies they will propose for the development of Arakan State. Also remaining to be seen is whether and how they will push back on Union government dictates when deemed appropriate, especially if/when they again have a legitimate claim on the right to form the state government.

I’d like to suggest to Arakanese people to cast ballots this November not only considering their vote from the point of nationalism, because a decision on such a basis has not, to date, brought the strong policy vision we need to see development in the region.

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