Domestic and international observer groups have commended the orderly, fair and transparent conduct of the 1 April by-elections in Myanmar, while lamenting the low levels of interest and knowledge of the process found among voters—stressing the need for stepped-up voter education efforts in time for the next general election in 2020.
Between 2-3 April, domestic groups Election Education and Observation Partners (EEOP) and the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), and international group the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), held press conferences in Yangon where statements with preliminary findings were released.
The observer groups each covered all 19 constituencies across 22 townships where by-elections took place, in Yangon, Bago and Sagaing regions, and Shan, Kayah, Chin, Rakhine and Mon states. EEOP fielded 220 observers on 1 April, PACE more than 600 and ANFREL 15, with each observer taking in a spread of polling stations.
The by-elections filled seats in the Upper and Lower houses of the Union Parliament, as well as seats in multiple state and regional parliaments, vacated after the elected members were promoted to executive or judicial positions in the government, or had died.
Two townships in Shan State, Monghsu and Kyethi, were voting for the first time, after voting was cancelled in 2015 due to conflict. Five other townships in Shan State where voting was cancelled in 2015 were not included, and remain without any representation.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), which scored a landslide win of over 80 percent of parliamentary seats in the 2015 general election, took a more modest haul of nine out of the 18 seats it contested for the by-elections.
Elsewhere saw gains for ethnic parties—the Arakan National Party took a seat in Rakhine State, the All Nationalities Democracy Party took one in Kayah State, and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy took six in Shan State. The former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party took one seat each in Shan and Mon states.
Turnout varied considerably—between 12 percent in Hlaing Tharyar Township of Yangon and 75 percent in Thantlang Township of Chin State—and was higher in more rural and ethnic minority areas. It was overall low at 37 percent: a drop from 69 percent achieved in the 2015 general election. Campaigning was also limited in comparison.
Despite turnout, observers have few quibbles with the process. ANFREL’s preliminary statement read, “For a country still early in its democratic transition, the success of the by-elections is something the people of Myanmar can be rightly proud of.” The observer group’s findings signalled “continued progress in Myanmar’s electoral development.”
EEOP found that polling in 95 percent of locations observed was “well-conducted,” pointing out only occasional lapses in procedure, including not displaying lists of advance voters in 14 percent of polling stations, and “overcrowding” in another 14 percent, which, impinged on the secrecy of the vote, it said.
EEOP identified more serious oversights in the counting process—in 20 percent of venues, unused ballots were not cancelled, and in 14 percent, the number of cast ballots was not reconciled with the number of voter signatures—but none that EEOP considered seriously impaired the credibility of the process.
EEOP’s assessment over the inclusion of disabled people raised more serious concerns: 31 percent of polling stations observed were deemed “not easily accessible.” PACE’s assessment was more generous, with 88 percent of polling stations observed considered “accessible” to the disabled.
PACE identified some instances where absence from the voter list led to disenfranchisement, although these were limited in scale: in 25 percent of polling stations observed, 10 people or less were turned away for this reason, rising to 35 percent in Yangon; in 2 percent overall, the number turned away was 11-50 per polling station.
In contrast to the 2015 general election—where errors in the voter list were cited as possible evidence of government rigging, and distrust ran high with a Union Election Commission (UEC) dominated by a former army general—the 1 April by-elections passed with no significant accusations, either of fraud or incompetence.
A previous voter survey conducted by EEOP found a high level of confidence in the fairness of the process and the neutrality of the election commission, despite a general lack of knowledge of party platforms or the general function of by-elections.
These were the first polls held under UEC commissioners appointed by the NLD government. To the surprise of some—who expected someone of the stature of incumbent U Tin Aye, a former junta heavyweight—a virtual unknown, U Hla Thein, then chair of a district election sub-commission, was appointed as UEC chair.
Beyond two legal amendments mandating the deadline within which by-elections must be held when a seat becomes vacant, there had been little reform to an electoral framework considered substantially flawed in observer reports from the 2015 election.
The Carter Center, a US-based group that observed the 2015 election—and mentored EEOP for the by-elections—highlighted the provisions around candidate registration, which discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities, and the critical lack of oversight over UEC decisions by the judiciary or legislature.
However, PACE in its statement commended the release by the UEC of an election timeline—laying out the schedule for electoral preparations such as voter list preparation and candidate registration—as well as polling station lists to the public: transparency measures not taken during previous elections.
Advance voting—a source of substantial alleged fraud in 2010, and the cause of controversy in multiple races in 2015—was open to much greater scrutiny by observers this time around. However, out-of-constituency advance voting,particularly as undertaken by members of the military, remains opaque and beyond even UEC oversight.
Noting this critical flaw in the electoral system, ANFREL said, “UEC control of all aspects of the voting process, regardless of whether voting takes place overseas or on a military base, would be a helpful start to reforming the process.”
However, rules such as the cancellation of advance votes delivered to counting centres after a 4pm deadline were consistently enforced, PACE observed. A number of reports that this rule was not being honoured surfaced in 2015, leading to fraud accusations.
Both EEOP and ANFREL expressed disappointment at the low turnout, as well as the widespread lack of interest or even basic awareness of the process they encountered among voters in their observations during the two-month campaign period.
At the press conference on 3 April, EEOP representatives said the absence of the nationwide mobilisation seen in 2015 was partly to blame for low enthusiasm, but their observers had also detected some disillusionment among voters who had expected a more dramatic transformation in the economy and in their well being under the NLD government.
ANFREL, in its statement, hoped that “more voter education and outreach by civil society, the media and the UEC will remedy this lower turnout in the future.”