Opinion & Analysis

Myanmar: Elections 2023?

The Myanmar regime has in the last year made numerous statements regarding the need to hold national elections. During the current state of post-coup violent unrest, it seems unlikely any election could possibly get underway, let alone an election regarded as fair and democratic.

The date for the polls seems to change as time passes, it was August, it's now November, but no specific date has been named.

The polls, whenever they occur, will almost certainly make things worse in Myanmar, as groups opposed to the current junta push back in attempts to disrupt not only the poll, but the immediate pre-election period.

The junta itself claims the elections will usher in a quick return to civilian rule, although that will not include the National League for Democracy (NLD) the party that swept the polls before the coup in February 2021.

The military-drafted 2008 constitution sits at the bottom of this messy situation, and the role the army has carved for itself in that document allows it to remain in control, but “sharing power” with a civilian administration who will do what its told – in a way the NLD never really did.

The elections are intended to achieve this outcome, rather than to be any kind of exercise for enabling the will of the people.

The military’s chosen electoral proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), will likely win on the day, as most people will simply not participate.

Even as the delay rolls on, the regime faces a huge task in running anything close to a national poll.  

Given the extent of popular opposition to the polls, the military will have to impose them by force – pacifying areas of the country where its hold is tenuous, attempting to deter attacks on electoral targets, and intimidating poll workers and voters into participating.

Resistance groups are already mobilising to disrupt the process, and several election officials have already been killed. This violence looks set to continue.

The National Unity Government (NUG) is the other major political party in Myanmar, its strategy is simply to boycott the polls, whenever they occur,

NUG’s Canberra representative Dr Tun Aung Shwe says he doubts elections will occur at all in 2023, and says whenever the polls happen, it must be in a situation that can lead to the return of democratic government, without the involvement of the Myanmar military.

“I don’t believe it though, there will be no elections this year as the tenders have been withdrawn publicly – I saw a notice in the newspaper, Global New Light of Myanmar, indicating tenders for staging the election had been withdrawn.’

Tun Aung Shwe is also calling on foreign governments to work with ASEAN and its chair, Indonesia, to promote consensus as to the conflict risks of the elections and their lack of credibility.

“Countries should use what influence they have with Myanmar military to make them avoid violently imposing the elections on the people” he says.

“Countries also need to keep up the current targeted sanctions on the military and its business interests and make the Myanmar military understand that forcing people into an election is not acceptable”. 

Another significant hurdle facing political parties in Myanmar has been the radical change to party registration laws, which has in turn led to a significant reduction in the number of registered political parties in Myanmar.

Some 92 parties were registered before the coup - today its just 50.

The NLD, the party that took the last election, has been dissolved, as has the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the most successful ethnic party. These are just two of dozens of parties now gone from politics.

Through this year the most significant election-related activity has been the development of coherent voter lists.

Teams of vote counters have fanned out across the country amid ethnic violence and reprisals from the military. It’s a shambolic picture, with much of Myanmar still administered by government departments lacking computer technology or networks  This paper-based public service means each voter needs to be seen in person and have their details recorded.

Forces fighting the junta have targeted many administrative offices, destroying records and intimidating staff. They have also gone after those counting the voters. Some have been killed, and parts of the country have been deemed now too dangerous to conduct in-person voter enumeration.

When the regime eventually does hold elections, they are likely to be the most violent in Myanmar’s recent history.

Much of the population will not participate and regard the polls as a cynical attempt by the military to hold onto power.

But pressure to participate will be intense, and violence from both sides is likely to ramp up as polling day approaches.


NUG Canberra representative, Dr Tun Aung Shwe 

Whenever the elections take place, a transition period will then ensue, lasting four to five months, before a new administration takes power.

NUG Canberra representative Tun Aung Shwe is confident that eventually, that government can again be a democratic one, as the voice of the people is heard, and the 2008 constitution is changed.

“At that point the Tatmadaw returns to its barracks and leaves the political stage in Myanmar” he says. “They are finished in politics”.

For now though, the regime’s intention is for the Generals to handpick the new administration, but who it will choose and how the government will actually work is unclear.

Whether the new system is in place by the end of 2023 seems highly unlikely. 

- Asia Media Centre