On November 8, 2015, Myanmar will conduct its first national elections since the military backed civilian government (Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP) took power in 2011. A host of issues surrounds the elections, including religious persecution of minorities, ongoing civil wars, and corruption, along with a huge push to develop Myanmar’s economy. On top of all that, the constitution of Myanmar bars Aung San Suu Kyi, the highly popular leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), from becoming president. Despite this, many Myanmar people see the elections as a chance to make a statement, and voter turnout is expected to be high.
The Long Road to Free(er) Elections
The elections in 2010 that brought the current government to power were widely viewed as fraudulent by domestic observers and the UN, along with other international bodies. Intimidation at the polls was rife, and voter fraud was suspected. Additionally, only government sanctioned political parties were allowed to field candidates, and the NLD boycotted the elections.
The result was an unsurprising victory for the USDP. Following the election, however, the government took steps to bring increasing freedom and fairness into the political process. Some of these steps included the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the release of hundreds of political prisoners, a freer press, and a commitment to a peace process (as yet unresolved and with many issues).
In 2012, the government held by-elections to fill 46 vacant seats in the national assembly. The NLD won 43 out of the 44 seats they contested, indicating the overwhelming public support for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. This was the first election to have international observers, and although the access granted observers was not up to international standards, it was accepted as a move in the right direction.
Can the Military Govern a Free Election?
While the government has made some progress in making the upcoming election more transparent, calling them fair and free would be a misnomer. The link between the military and the current government is a cause for concern among many observers. Military officials have little to gain from changing the status quo.
With the military having 25 per cent of the legislative seats per the 2008 constitution, whoever wins the election this year will have to work very closely with the commander-in-chief in order to achieve any real progress away from a military backed government. As the military largely controls its own budget, the incoming civilian government will be left with little institutional leverage over the organization that has effectively ruled Myanmar for decades.
The military also has some influence over the Union Election Commission (UEC), the nominally autonomous body in charge of administering the elections. The chair of the EUC is both ex-military and a former member of the current ruling party. While the election commission at the Union level has shown some autonomy, commissions at the regional/state level and below are more likely to cede authority to the military commander in the administrative division.
Observing the Election
There are both internal and external organizations and individuals working to educate voters and ensure a free election. Foreign election observers are playing an important role. While the 2010 elections had no foreign observers, elections this year will be monitored by an impressive number of observers, both domestic and foreign. Some 11,000 observers are expected to be deployed through 28 organizations that have been accredited by the UEC. Both domestic and international observer organizations indicated that the UEC has been largely forthcoming in communicating with observers, at least at the Union level.
Furthermore, the media has largely been free of interference or intimidation from the military and the ruling party. In comparison to previous elections, the political expression of free speech has been tolerated. There have, however, been several arrests over political satire, and some media report an increased Special Branch police presence.
Campaigns and Electoral Irregularities
On the whole, the campaign environment (for those candidates permitted to run) has been free of intimidation and suppression. Seventy-nine of 91 registered parties have signed a political party code of conduct, and the campaign has largely been free of political party sponsored violence. Candidate rallies have been peaceful, with few observed incidences of speech inciting hate or using personal attacks. Candidates have also been able to campaign with little fear for their physical safety, although there have been some isolated incidences reported.
There are some acute challenges that do impact the fairness of the elections. Four in particular include:
- Voting Lists: The voter lists are important as they provide information on who is allowed to vote in specific districts. They were a serious concern in the 2010 elections, and were broadly dismissed as suffering from tampering and fraud. In this election, the UEC took on the daunting task of digitizing the voter rolls, which was a massive effort in a country that has very little in the way of digitized information. Errors were understandably made, whether through malice or incompetence remains an open question. Although the creation of a digitized list was an important step for the next elections, there was little effort to ensure voters saw the voting lists, and in many areas, there was little voter-education taking place.
- Advanced Voting: Advanced voting has taken place for Myanmar nationals living abroad, as well as for members of the military living on military installations. There has been no access for observers, either local or international, for out-of-constituency advance voting. Because the ruling USDP is heavily backed by the military, the issue of unobserved advanced voting on military installations is one that could create irregularities.
- Disenfranchisement: Perhaps the most serious issue surrounding these elections has been the disenfranchisement of voters. While much of the international focus has been on the plight of the Rohingya people in Northern Rakhine state, other groups have also suffered de-facto disenfranchisement. In some areas where there is fighting due to the ongoing civil war, elections have been canceled. People in the IDP camps in Kachin state have reportedly lost their right to vote, as they are not living in their registered township. Finally, the Muslim population of Myanmar has been systemically discriminated against through voter disenfranchisement and the disproportionate removal of eligible candidates.
- Public Understanding of Elections: The capacity of the general public and the election commission to conduct elections has a very low baseline. There is little experience with the democratic process in the country, with a resulting demand for voter education that has not been met. Additionally, there is a lack of competence on the part of the election officials, especially in more rural townships. Combined with the complex, multi-stakeholder environment that exists, this increases the possibility of invalid votes being cast.
An Election and its Aftermath
Although the final results of the votes will not be known for several days after the polls close on November 8, 2015 (the government has stated November 10 as the day when counting will be finished, but due to lack of technical capacity, this could well be delayed), expectations for the election will be high. All parties are reportedly expecting to do well, which will certainly lead to disappointment. Although making political predictions is always risky, it is almost certain the USDP will lose many of the seats it currently holds.
The aftermath will be a phase of uncertainty. There is a limited dispute resolution period, and the sole arbiter of disputes is the UEC. If the NLD does not achieve significant gains, there is the possibility for some civilian unrest. The Myanmar Police Force has already placed the Yangon region on orange alert for the first half of November, with an increased police presence expected on Election Day. With an unfinished peace process thrown into the mix, the environment could become more unstable in ethnic states, if the ethnic parties fail to see the results they hope for.
No matter the outcome, during the four-month interim period between election results and setting up the new government, it is expected that the military will attempt to consolidate its position. If the NLD does achieve the gains it expects, the issue becomes one of who will serve as president. Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly said that, regardless of who is chosen in the event of an NLD win, she will sit above the president. Given that the military holds 25 per cent of the parliament by law, it is imperative that whoever is in power works with the military. Statements such as the one by Aung San Suu Kyi do not bode well for achieving meaningful progress.
In the end, the elections will play a pivotal role in the development of the country, whatever the outcome. The citizens of the Myanmar will hope to have their voice heard, and the international community will watch with intense interest to see if the reforms promulgated in the aftermath of the 2010 election were simply window dressing, or if they were indicators of meaningful change.
Ian McDonald is a post-graduate research fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Before joining APF Canada, Ian served as an intern with the Canadian Embassy in Myanmar. Ian has been in Myanmar during the run-up to the election, and this analysis reflects his personal observations of the election process.