KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy have clinched a second consecutive landslide win in national elections, though analysts still expect slow going for democratic reforms and peace talks in the war-torn country.
The Union Election Commission Saturday declared the NLD the winner of the Nov. 8 poll, with the party gaining 396 of the 498 contested seats in the bicameral parliament. That not only puts it well over the 322 it needs to govern alone but gives it nine more seats than it won in 2015, when it swept to power in Myanmar's first democratic elections after decades of military rule.
"I think it was a very straightforward message, which is, ‘You trusted us five years ago, trust us again, and Mother Suu's in charge and everything will be OK,’" said Myanmar analyst David Mathieson, borrowing a favorite term for the country's de facto leader among her followers.
Hot and cold conflicts between the military and ethnic armed groups fighting for autonomy in Myanmar's hinterlands saw the election commission cancel 22 parliament races over security concerns, disenfranchising 1.4 million eligible voters in areas where ethnic minority parties do best. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya were also denied a vote because the government refuses to recognize them as citizens, even though many trace their roots in Myanmar back several generations.
The Carter Center, a U.S.-based election monitor, flagged concerns with those denied a vote and possible election commission bias in the NLD's favor, but said that for the most part "voters were able to freely express their will at the polls."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also raised concerns about the canceled races, disenfranchised Rohingya, and the many seats in parliament reserved for the military but said the election was still "an important step in the country's democratic transition."
Abroad, Suu Kyi has seen the democratic credentials she earned over years of house arrest for standing up to the military shredded by her defense of the army’s bloody 2017 operations in the western state of Rakhine. A well-documented campaign of arson, rape and murder drove more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh that year. Myanmar’s military called its operations a justified and mostly clean counterinsurgency; the United Nations dubbed it a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
At home, though, most people believe Suu Kyi and the NLD are their best bet for driving the widely reviled military out of politics for good. Myanmar's generals still have absolute control of key ministries that run the country's armed forces, police and borders, and are guaranteed a quarter of the seats in parliament under the constitution they drafted, just enough to veto any attempt to take those seats away.
"The election outcome is proof that the most important consideration for Myanmar voters is that the country stays the course on its democratic transition. To many, the NLD still represents their best chance to ensure that," said Dereck Aw, a senior analyst for consultants Control Risks who follows Myanmar.
He and other analysts have their doubts, though, about how much more the ruling party can do with a second term.
Aw reckons the NLD will continue to "walk [a] fine line" with the military.
"It will hesitate to challenge the military’s enduring grip on politics and the economy. This would limit what the NLD can realistically achieve in the next five years," he said.
The NLD made a big push in its first term to strip the constitution of many provisions that preserve the military's political sway, only to see the generals dash months of negotiation by blocking their proposals.
Mathieson said the NLD could use the mandate it has earned by once again drubbing the military's political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, at the polls to push the military even harder on reform. The USDP, the closest thing Myanmar has to a formal opposition, won only 33 seats, eight fewer than it did in 2015.
He said, though, that the NLD made little effort over the past five years to even peel back repressive parts of the constitution it could amend with a simple majority, without support from the military.
"They didn't seem very interested in that in the past five years, so why would we think they're going to be interested now?" he said.
There's also concern that relations between the NLD and military, already declining by some accounts, could fray further still.
Khin Zaw Win, who heads the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon think tank, said a battle is brewing over the presidency.
Barred from becoming president by the constitution, Suu Kyi has appointed loyalists to the post who let her rule from the sidelines as "state counselor," a title contrived just for her as a workaround. Khin Zaw Win, however, said military chief Min Aung Haling, who is overdue for retirement, is widely believed to covet the presidency himself.
"So there could be a big clash coming," he said.
The analyst said those tensions will also make it tougher for Myanmar to make progress on the long-running peace talks Suu Kyi's civilian government and military have been holding haltingly with ethnic armed groups who want to turn the country into a federation.
Suu Kyi has squandered much of the good will she first had with the ethnic parties closely tied to those armed groups with her imperious approach, said Christina Fink, a professor at George Washington University in the U.S. who studies Myanmar.
In Rakhine, for example, the NLD appointed one of its own as chief minister, even though a local party representing the ethnic Arakan who live there dominates the state legislature. The north of the state is now racked by heavy fighting between the military and Arakan Army, another armed group that wants autonomy for its region.
While working to whittle away the military's political power, Fink said, Suu Kyi and the NLD have let the military set much of the agenda in the peace talks and even endorsed its fight with the Arakan Army.
"A lot of ethnic parties feel that they've been marginalized and that the NLD has just kind of pursued things on its own," said Fink. "So it has to do a lot of work to really prove to the ethnic parties, both within the peace process and outside of the peace process, that it is committed to establishing a federal democratic union."