Ten days ago, Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) defeated the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Burma’s military-backed ruling party.
For the first time in 53 years, Burma likely will have a democratically elected government. This nearly happened in 1990, but the military voided the results of that election and assumed power.
In a country emerging from decades of military rule, polling is still a novelty. But we caught a glimpse of what voters were thinking from a pre-election poll, taken during the last two weeks in October. Mizzima Media and the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research coordinated the poll of 1,200 adults aged 18 and older.
The results from that poll showed a deep well of hope and goodwill for the NLD: 45 percent of voters said they would vote for the NLD before the election, whereas only 30 percent said they would vote for the USDP. But as we now see from the election results, the people’s support for the NLD was even greater than our polls indicated. In the end, the NLD won in a landslide, capturing at least 80 percent of the seats.
While public opinion is clearly on the NLD’s side, the public’s expectations are enormous, too, presenting the new government with a formidable challenge.
A record 80 percent of the electorate queued up to cast votes at 50,000 polling stations. Many voters spent the afternoon by tea stalls with friends and family, their fingers stained with ink, celebrating their desire for both change and a peaceful transfer of power.
A week before the election, we found that 62 percent of Burmese were optimistic about the future. They felt they have seen some benefits of reform: rising incomes, new roads and bridges, greater latitude for democratic expression.
But now, as in 1990, they’re hungry for even more change. The polling showed that voters gave poor reviews to the military government when it came to “kitchen table” issues like delivering quality health care, creating jobs, providing housing, fighting crime, and controlling inflation.
The devoutly Buddhist country also faces the rise of Buddhist supremacists who warned that an NLD victory would mean a takeover of the country by Muslims. But the survey demonstrated that voters separated devotion to their religious institutions from divisive messages spread by politicized clergy. Sixty-eight percent of voters rejected the message of hatred towards their Muslim fellow citizens.
Even in Mandalay, the hotbed of the Buddhist supremacist movement, the NLD won all but six constituencies. Hopefully, this signals a country at peace with itself, one where all citizens can realize their potential.
The new government will have to work hard to deliver a peace that has eluded Burma for more than 60 years. Fighting between national and ethnic armies continues even as the votes are still being counted. Nearly six in ten voters said they supported some form of devolution of power from the central government in Yangon to the regions and states. The NLD will have to act quickly to make this happen.
No easy task in a difficult political environment. The NLD’s success will hinge on whether the current government, dominated by former generals and the military, is prepared to share power. General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief and the real locus of power, has promised to respect the election results. So there is hope that the country will see a peaceful transition of government.
Even if that occurs, however, the NLD still faces the enormous task of extricating the military from decades of entrenchment in the resource-rich economy. The constitution grants the military an automatic 25 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament. That would complicate a close election, but fortunately the NLD’s landslide makes the point moot. It appears that the NLD will win a super-majority of the seats in parliament, which means that when parliament chooses the president in January, the USDP won’t have the votes to defeat the NLD candidate.
All of this was fairly expected, since, in the days before the election, a few prominent USDP candidates conducted some polling that offered a glimpse of the impending rout. For both sides, a solid prediction of what was coming turned out to be a good thing. It meant that the USDP wasn’t surprised on election day, and it showed the will of the people is on the NLD’s side.
Political polling won’t tell the new Burmese government how to govern or what choices to make, but clearly polling can play a role in helping to avert violence and make a free and fair election a legitimate one.