With less than a month until Myanmar’s general election, a growing number of issues have raised concern regarding the current government’s sincerity in ensuring a credible process that is free, fair, and transparent –quite apart from the question of whether the election itself will be held when it is scheduled.
Views on Myanmar’s electoral process are split: some civil society groups and media outlets have predicted that the ruling party may employ questionable tactics to win, while others believe that the country has progressed too far to backtrack and wants to preserve its positive image. Indeed, this election and the ensuing formation of government will serve as a benchmark for Myanmar’s democratic transition.
While the ultimate outcome is difficult to predict, several election-related issues can serve as benchmarks to assess the overall conduct of the political process and ultimate acceptance of the election by the international community, including the exclusion of religious minorities, voter list errors, unclear roles and miscommunication between national and local election commissions, and electioneering.
So far, the Union Election Commission (UEC) has drawn international criticism for disqualifying nearly 100 candidates from the race, many on the premise of citizenship. It takes both Jus Soli (right of soil) and Jus Sanguinis (right of blood) for one to run in Myanmar’s elections. If one or both parents of a candidate hold foreign residency status, he/she will be automatically disqualified. It seems apparent that this policy is targeted primarily at Muslim candidates to ensure their removal from the election, a move by the UEC to appease the extremist Buddhist movement in the country which has grown more powerful over the past few years.
To be eligible to participate in the November 8 election, prospective voters’ information included on the official voter list must be accurate. The initial public release of the list on May 25 (allowing changes to be made until June 7) by the UEC – the constitutionally-created institution that oversees all aspects and conduct of the election – also drew criticism due to extensive errors. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), alleged that 80 percent of the names on the list were incorrectly entered or omitted, a claim the UEC admitted could be true in individual townships, but not true across the nation. From September 14 to September 27, the voter list opened once again for public viewing and correction. Again, voters encountered errors in personal information and name omissions, some suggesting even more so than during the first round.
While acknowledging the mismanagement of its responsibilities, the UEC placed the blame primarily on lack of voter awareness. UEC Chairman U Tin Aye stated – to the dismay of Myanmar election watchers – that “only 30 percent of eligible voters can be guaranteed the right to vote”. He said this in reference to the 30 percent of eligible voters who in fact showed up to check their names on the list upon its first release. Tin Aye said the responsibility lies solely with the citizens to check the voter list in ensuring their right to vote.
With as many, if not more, errors evident in the second distributed voter list, the UEC has done little but blame them on “technological flaws,” The Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is responsible for supporting the UEC in this endeavor, and Eleven News reported that it is starting to lead to skepticism about its work.
Another issue facing the elections is the miscommunication between local and national election commissions. The opinion of sub-commission principals are rarely taken into account, and all standard operating procedures lies within a highly centralized UEC, which is no match to the sub-commissions when it comes to regional expertise and manpower.
One township commissioner attributes the main cause of voter list errors to a flawed policy established by the UEC – the inclusion of any and all listed individuals in a township, whether or not they are confirmed as physically residing in that township. The official said that when officials checked homes in his particular township to make sure they are actually occupied by documented residents, the gap between listed residents and actual residents was over 1,600 (a number that includes those deceased whose families never registered their deaths, Myanmar residents living overseas or having moved to different townships, etc.). Instead of discarding these individuals from the rolls, the UEC insists on including them on the voter list. This can create overlap for those residing and voting in another township, and allows a precedent to register the dead and other ineligible names as well.
Another common error is the listing of the same individual twice with different birth dates – one in the English version and another in the Burmese calendar version, thus doubling an individual vote. For the process to be credible, these names should instead be discarded entirely, and should some of them return to vote in those townships, those voters must present the requisite forms to the local election commission.
With that, the regions to keep a close watch on with precedence and high possibility for the “dead vote” – individuals voting more than once and rampant corruption – are Sagaing Region, Ayeyarwady Region, Mandalay Region, Tanintharyi Region, Chin State and Kayah State. Back in the 2010 elections, the USDP won with 80 percent to 100 percent of votes in constituencies across those regions.
Participants in and critics of the election in the past month have also accused incumbent government ministers of using their positions and wealth to directly influence voters. For instance, U Soe Thein, Union Minister for the President’s Office and key architect of the country’s economic and foreign direct investment policies, backed projects worth tens of thousands of dollars in his constituency – including satellite dishes, water distribution, and a soccer competition – ahead of the elections. U Khin Maung Soe, the current Union Minister of Electric Power and ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party’s candidate, has promised to provide 24-hour electricity to his township once elected, citing his position in the ministry.
These actions are clear-cut violations of the campaign laws that prohibit union ministers and government officials running for parliament from using their office authority, budget, supplies and even time for campaign purposes. The UEC has not taken action on these complaints.
While the current government has consistently provided assurances of a transparent and credible election process, such issues in the past few months have fostered doubt and concern about the conduct and outcome of the election. The continued and widespread errors in the voter list have further elevated initial suspicion about the UEC and whether its Chairman Tin Aye – a former General during the SPDC and former member of the ruling USDP – is pledging allegiance to his allies rather than to ensuring an impartial election. The fact that the UEC in its entirety and its sub-commissions are made up primarily of ex-military and union ministry officials only add to existing suspicions.
Despite these doubts, there is yet hope for a relatively fair process. Several international election monitoring missions have established a presence in Myanmar, including the U.S.-based Carter Center, Japan, and the European Union. Perhaps these will serve as forces to contain, if not entirely eradicate, an erroneous outcome in Myanmar’s apparently flawed electoral process.
Hla Hpone “Jack” Myint is a research assistant at Inle Advisory Group, a Washington, D.C.-based boutique advisory firm focused on investment opportunities in Myanmar. He is also a Prospect Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi Nobel Peace Prize Fund) Scholar.