Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Three Elections and How They are Demonstrating the Flaws More Than the Strengths of Democracy

Polling for the byelection to the four of five vacant seats in the Manipur Legislative Assembly, has just concluded and the fate of the candidates in the fray will remain, as the cliché goes, sealed in the ballot boxes, or more accurately, as digital information in electronic voting machines, till the counting day on November 10, or latest by November 12 if there are to be any repolling required in any of the polling stations. Of the five seats, the result of the contest for the Singhat Assembly constituency had already been decided in favour of the candidate set up by the ruling BJP as no other party filed nomination for whatever the reason. At the end of this round of elections, there would still be eight more Assembly seats vacant, thanks to Manipur’s brand of turncoat politics. Byelections to them would also have to be held sooner than later, as they cannot simply be left vacant till the end of the term of the current Assembly. Unnecessarily wasteful as these byelections are, especially in the midst of the COVID emergency, this is Manipur’s reality and we have to face it, like it or not.

Even as we say this of the Manipur by-election, on the world canvas, the much watched and discussed American presidential elections is drawing to a troubled closure. It must be said this was a hard-fought election and the result reflects it. The trends do indicate, President Donald Trump, fighting to retain the top job for the Republican Party is on his way out though he and his supporters are resorting to all means fair and foul to subvert the democratic process. His Democrat challenger Joe Biden, much calmer and composed though far from charismatic, is on the verge of becoming the next President of unarguably the most powerful and richest country in the world. It is also the country’s peculiar election system, where the President it not elected by popular votes directly, but through electors (or electoral college) elected from each state, is making matters more complicated, and in the modern times, unjust. Given this system, a candidate in America’s presidential race can win less number of votes than his rival and yet win the contest. This, it may be recalled was the case in the 2016 election when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by an electoral college verdict, though he was 3 million votes down in terms of popular votes. In the current election however, Biden seem set to win both the electoral college votes as well as the popular votes. These elections have also revealed clearly the divide between the sparsely populated, largely White rural heartlands and the populous coastal states and cities, which have been demography melting pots for years. The pattern visible is, the former leans towards the Republican Party and the latter toward Democrats. Trump has sharpened this divide radically and dangerously.

Even now, on the verge of losing, Trump is alleging the election system of being rigged and corrupt. But the question is, should it not be the party in power which would have been most empowered to do such organised mischief in the government’s own election institution. Or was it always Trump versus the rest even within the American government establishment, even while he was the president. These charges do sound like America calling itself thief, and nothing can be more unfortunate. However, to see a little less than half of America still ready bare their fangs on Trump’s behalf indicates the extent of the dark medieval bloodthirsty forces already set loose in America, and this is scary. A former Trump advisor and surrogate, unabashed White supremacist Steve Bannon even called for renowned immunologist who has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, Anthony Fauci, and FBI director, Christopher Wray, to be beheaded and their heads displayed at the White House, for not falling in line with some of Trump’s outrageous and dangerous claims. There is little doubt that whoever ultimately wins, this “Trumpism” monster will not be easily tamed or exorcised for a long time, if at all. Maybe this monster was always there deep in the American unconscious, and now it has been unleashed. For a long time from now, America probably will be burdened with a “who will bell the cat”, syndrome.

There is yet another important election happening, and this one is in our neighbourhood. Myanmar will be going to the polls on November 8, Sunday, to elect a new government to head the country for the next five years. This election is also watched with interest for its tryst with democracy after an extended five decades of military rule. Much has been written of the flaws in the nascent democracy, as for instance its 2008 constitution which overtly and overly provides for centralised administrative establishment, though its diverse geography and ethnic constituent demands a meaningful federalism. The constitution also gives the country’s military a virtual stranglehold on its democracy, with 25 percent seats in all legislative houses, both Union and the regional/state assemblies. Discussing the peculiarity and oppressive architecture of the overall administrative institution will be for another time, but what is equally interesting is the background as to how this structure has come to be what it is today. All former colonies of European countries had their share of trauma when they began their journey into freedom but nobody will dispute that Myanmar, Burma then, had it worse than most on January 4, 1948 when their journey into freedom was flagged off. To cut a long story short, they literally were left to begin on a blank slate, without any credible institutions to rely on for effective governance.

Although he was not writing about Myanmar, jurist A.G. Noorani, provided a clue for a possible reason in his book India-China Boundary Problem when he talked about three different modes of decolonisation of former British colonies. In the case of India and Pakistan, it was a transfer of power. All institutions of civil and judicial administration with all its flaws and virtues were inherited intact, so that each of the two new countries could continue the administrative process without a break. These functional administrative mechanisms provided the way for a smooth transition and when modifications were necessary, there were no unease of the sense kickstarting an administration. Noorani also discusses the Ireland way, where a transfer of power happened but how the Irish decided a quicker transformation. However, for whatever the reason, the case of Myanmar was different. It was not a transfer of power, but simply of end of paramountcy of the British. Myanmar thus began in an institutional vacuum, and had to build them all anew and win credibility for them amongst the public, a no mean task for anybody.

Expectedly, Myanmar descended slowly but surely into chaos, a scenario reconstructed well by Shelby Tucker in his book Burma: The Curse of Independence. Imagine, not long after Myanmar’s independence, there were two divisions of Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist Chinese army (Kaomintang) which entered Burma and stationed themselves in the Shan State, with the assistance of the CIA, preparing for an assault to overthrow Mao Tse Tung’s Communist regime. This humiliation apart, there were also dangerous centrifugal forces exerted by the ethnic States to secede from the Myanmar Union. These were understandably causes for immense public insecurity, and when Ne Win’s military coup happened in 1962, it was actually welcomed by a large section of the Myanmar population, as this was seen as a short-term emergency measure to keep the country from disintegrating. The only fault was in the presumption that power would willingly be relinquished by those given its handles, and so the military regime remained for five decades until giving in to internal and internal pressures to begin the process of democratisation of the Myanmar polity again. This nascent democracy however still carries many of the past insecurities subliminally, as for instance in the continued substantial presence of the military the government and the 2008 Constitution’s mistrust of diversity and federalism.

This is what Myanmar today is left to tackle. One of the biggest challenges before it is to enlist the willing participation of the country’s many ethnic communities in seven different ethnic states, in its nation building mission. The popular prediction in tomorrow’s election is, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD will emerge as the majority again, perhaps even with an absolute majority mandate in mainland Myanmar, though ethnic state parties likely would have drifted further away from it. In the 2015 election, NLD and alies had a landslide victory winning 86 percent of the seats in the national bicameral assembly. Ethnic parties, most of whom allied with NLD had 12.5 percent. The rest went to the USDP and allies. This time too, the prediction is NLD will retain its hold on most seats, and ethnic parties, though no longer NLD allies, may also increase their shares to as much as 20 percent. Of the 93 political parties in the fray this time, 23 are aligned with the USDP but they together are still predicted to remain in the margin of Myanmar politics with just about 10 percent. So then, if this prediction proves true, how must NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi proceed is the important question? Our suggestion has been, and still is, for the NLD to exercise what has been termed as the “Moral Imagination”, and for it to embrace the ethnic parties as equal partners even if it has the majority on its own. If this election is the immediate war to be won, there is a much bigger and longer term war of emotional integration to be won beyond this war.

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