The third elections to be held under the 2008 military constitution took place in November 2020 and featured factors that conditioned and constrained the chances of women’s electoral success. After a decade of electoral democracy, youth and women were optimistic about potential electoral representation. Compared to previous elections, women from diverse backgrounds with different ethnicities, religions, ages, qualifications, careers, and political ideologies contested the 2020 general elections. Lawyers, journalists, doctors, teachers, human rights defenders, businesswomen and women from non-governmental organizations participated in the elections. The majority of them competed in the elections with an aim of increasing women’s participation in politics. A total of 1,109 female candidates registered to compete in the elections, a four percent increase on the 2015 general elections.
However, only a total of 907 were able to contest the elections, and of them, 191 were elected to the parliament. Twenty three candidates made it to the Upper House (Pyithu Hluttaw), 52 made it to the Lower House (Amyotha Hluttaw) and 116 made it to the state and region parliaments. As a result, 72 female candidates (15 percent of the total) were elected to the Union parliament’s bicameral legislature, failing to meet the minimum 20 percent required to table a motion for constitutional amendment. Female candidates faced challenges stemming from the electoral system, laws and by-laws stipulated in the 2008 military constitution, in addition to challenges from rigorous party politics and competition, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020 election was vibrant and highly competitive. A total of 5,359 candidates from 91 political parties, in addition to another 280 independent candidates, contested the elections. There were between 7-15 contestants in each constituency and there were no constituencies without competition (though some constituencies had their elections cancelled). Debates on the possibility of forming a coalition government pushed rigorous competition between the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and opposition parties. The NLD wanted to form a majority government and opposition parties wanted to win more seats in parliament. After failing to amend the 2008 military constitution to allow for the nomination and appointment of chief ministers of the states and regions through parliament rather than the President, state-based parties also tried hard to win more seats in both Union and state-level parliaments. Ethnic parties claiming to represent Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon and Wa communities merged into more electorally competitive unions. In the country’s regions, there was fierce 2 Women’s League of Burma competition between the NLD and the military proxy opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and in the ethnic states, there was fierce competition between these two parties and the respective ethnic parties.
In addition, there were tensions ahead of the 2020 general elections between opposition parties and the Union Election Commission (UEC) due to a reduction in dialogues and engagement. For example, 26 opposition parties, led by the USDP, protested against the UEC by refusing to sign the political parties code of conduct over disputes on some articles. Later and separately, 34 opposition political parties, again led by the USDP, met the commander-in-chief of the military to state they would take action against the UEC if there was any electoral fraud. Further, COVID-19 restrictions in the campaign period included stay-athome orders in 74 townships and restrictions on movement.1 There was a division of opinion among political parties on whether the elections should be postponed or not.2 Opposition parties led by the USDP favored election postponement, but the UEC, consisting of political appointees by the incumbent NLD, strongly rejected this and went ahead with the elections as planned.
The 2020 general elections were held successfully during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, compared to the 2015 elections, electoral violence, disputes and online and offline misinformation and hate speech increased, according to election observers.3 Female candidates contesting in this political and electoral context experienced attacks and discrimination in addition to minimized electoral financing. However, when compared to the 2015 general elections, the news media aired introduction programs of at least some female candidates promptly. Due to COVID-19 related restrictions, the voter education programs on the ground were weak. But digital campaigns raising voter education and public awareness were effective to some extent. The moral support and electoral campaign materials provided to candidates by women’s organizations also benefited them.
However, a majority of female candidates were not able to contest the elections freely due to their political parties, electoral institutions (the UEC, electoral laws and by-laws, voting procedures, and election management), and discrimination in mainstream culture and society. The following section discusses the impact of political parties, electoral institutions and discrimination on female candidates’ selections of constituencies, on their campaigning and on the elections themselves. The final section discusses areas for reform, coordination and activities that women’s organizations can use to give effective support.