The International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or International IDEA for short, is an intergovernmental group that, as part of STEP democracy an 8-organization (4 local, 4 international) project supported by the EU, is supporting the Union Election Commission in the run-up to the election. The group provides media and technical support.
International IDEA has been supporting the UEC through the pre-election period spreading the message of the importance of checking the voter list and voting. They have supplied radio broadcasts, in eight languages, and a cartoon programme for national TV broadcast.
Country Representative, Jorge Valladares talked to Mizzima’s Jaiden Coonan about Myanmar's path to democracy, campaigning, and the upcoming November 8 elections.
How do you view Myanmar’s path to democracy?
It is a very bumpy path indeed. It hasn’t just started in the last few months, it started a long time ago, but we’re fast approaching a very decisive moment in this transition - whether this is to be a transition is yet to be seen - from November 8 and the weeks that will follow.
I think the process is giving us the lesson that there are some political will and some others who have to take part in the elections and that makes it plural and the objective is that the government and the parties want to have that. Whether it is going to be free and fair, we’re still working towards that end.
In my experience looking at other processes like this doesn’t end with a transitional election. That is only the starting point of a long process of consensus building, and ambitious reform. I think the challenge now is how to get to that point, with new terms of engagement. The election will set terms for that process. But we should not lose sight of the most important part - what is going to happen after the elections.
Myanmar has quite a unique place in history if you were to compare it to another country that has transitioned into a “democracy.” How does it compare?
Well, the main factors that I can think of that will help you make comparisons is the presence and role of the military in this transition. I’m Latin American, and so I think of Chile, [and] Argentina. Most Latin American countries had military dictatorships at some point in time towards the end of the 1980s. But then if you look closer to the neighbourhood, you have Indonesia and others.
The way you move from a military regime or authoritarian military regime to democracy is very, very complex. The very fact that in this country there isn’t only a very strong military actor involved in the decision-making but other groups that contest the authority of the state makes it even more complex, perhaps from that point of view.
I would say we have very few comparisons available. So I think what we are witnessing in these weeks and also if you think of the post-election period where you also realise that there is an ongoing peace process with many actors that will take part in the election. But at the same time, if there is an opening and those issues are unresolved perhaps that is the opportunity to settle those differences in the new environment, under new conditions in which all these different parties - whether it be the military, ethnic armed groups, or the democratic opposition - they may perhaps find space.
If the negotiation had happened years before perhaps the terms of that engagement would have been less beneficial unlike, maybe, in this new period. But it is yet to be seen, we’re all doing our best. I represent an organisation that provides technical support to the process. It isn’t political support. Of course the Step Democracy Project supports political actors, civil society actors, citizens themselves, but it is up to Myanmar people and the different groups in the country to make their own choices. From my perspective, the role STEP Democracy has is to support them to make their own choices on their way … for the future.
So if you ask me to compare Myanmar to another country, I would say you could find similarities of the role of the military, internal conflict, peace negotiations etc., but the only lesson I learn from these cases, there will not be an overnight solution. Just because we had an election and it was better than the elections in the past and because there was some political will present, it will take some time and a few more years to overcome this.
Are there enough international support and monitoring groups to effectively monitor the polling?
[There are] seventeen groups who will in their own estimates have about 15,000 observers in the polling stations, monitoring polling stations, if you consider there are 42 or 43,000 polling stations you will have a ratio of perhaps 3:1 which for international standards is fine. We made sure that an independent witness with training who understands the rules has the opportunity to assess how polling day was conducted. I would look first at what the domestic observer organisations have done, and they are conducting enormous efforts to provide training. The second is international observation. This is the first time in history that international observers are not only allowed and tolerated but actually invited. The authorities, both the UEC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have invited international organisations to support this. We expect more or less 500 international observers in total, including the EU, Carter Center and ANFREL Electoral Observation Missions, which have very well developed and solid methodologies that will see them cover different areas around the country and have an independent evidence-based observation.
They are now looking at distribution plans and assessing the areas at risk or where there may be some allegations and areas at risk of confrontation, or areas where disputes may not have an easy way of being handled. All that I can say is that it is an enormous army of observers, well distributed, well aware of the context, and it can indeed make a difference.
I know that the UEC is inviting other ASEAN observer groups most of them with experience in election monitoring bodies.
What will be done to ensure that there is no voter manipulation conducted ahead of the election?For example, a case where a factory owner who is a candidate allows his workers to vote in the constituency they work with bribery or other means.
One of the examples you gave is in reference to the voter list and how to change the voter list. The national display period finished last Sunday and I understand that it has been an enormous effort. The list has more or less been displayed in 17,000 locations in a number of villages and wards in the country. I’ve been reading the report by PACE in which they think they had systematic observations of what had happened. International IDEA is not involved in the preparation of the voter list, but we have been focusing closely on the efforts of voter education, and the efforts of the UEC in building an IT team that is capable of putting together a database that is strong enough to cover all of this.
The UEC with the support of the international community printed almost 13 million different forms to ensure that different people could fill this out. The other efforts that have been made are citizens getting involved. International IDEA, with assistance from the European Union, has supported efforts to call people and organise radio programmes that are broadcasted in eight different languages and on national television.
I think, after reading PACE’s report, that still the attendance of the public to go to check the list is low, compared to all the efforts to encourage people to check. But despite all of this the database of the 14 days checking period has much improved.
We may be getting very close in terms of total voter numbers included in the list. The estimations for people of 18 or older, which are more or less nearly accounted for, that’s based on the census which is indicative information because it is only a count of heads, but the voter list is much bigger because not only does it count people, it identifies them. I understand that there are bigger efforts to improve the quality of the list. We need to put this in the context that the original source of the list is the handwritten household list and guest lists and other types of lists that were not systematically collected, not with the safeguards that the voter list is being compiled of.
It is going to be a very hectic period updating it, but I come from a country, I’m from Peru, and the voter list in our last general election was also subjected to same safeguards. Not everyone is in their home places and it is at risk of voter manipulation, impersonation, etc. We need all our best efforts to improve the quality of the list, that was in the year 2000, so even 15 years later we still have some margin of error because this at list that can only be updated after somebody has moved. I think the main lesson that this is giving us is that after this… we’ve done a lot and we have a lot of progress because for the first time in history we have a database with information of 33 million people. That’s an enormous achievement for the UEC and the citizens who have come and put their names on the list. But then that effort should not stop, with issues over documentation and citizenship in this country that measure asset should be used for the rest of the transition and perhaps more focus should be put on having a list that is updated on a regular basis and not only for each election.
What can the government do to ensure that little influence is conducted from non-governmental groups, for example, the Ma Ba Tha, from manipulating voters’ decisions based on “race and religion” and other misleading identifiers?
The constitution and the law in my view, as an outsider, and does have a strong statement of the separation between politics and religion. I think most of the obligations from a legal point of view are directed to politicians and parties. There are restrictions for allowing parties to religious sites or messages or receiving money from religious organisations. I’m not sure if the constitution and legal framework, in general, are so strict with those who are outside of politics trying to intervene during the election campaigning. I know the moment will come when the UEC will have to assert their own position on that, but I think what we’re seeing is that the parties are getting more protective of the fact that politics belongs to politics, and there is a separation from religion.
I think it is up to Myanmar authorities and politicians to decide how far, or the way they want to separate these two things. Of course in an election like this when there are many other important things at stake it is a pity that the attention gets diverted to other issues that are part of the identity of this country that probably will not change. But there are many other things that are going to change during this election not only the openness of the political system, but also issues as important as how to get people out of poverty, provide employment, etc. I think some parties - what I can see and read from state-owned media - they are trying to point to those issues. I haven’t seen any politicians or heard of any politicians referring to these issues of religion or race in their own campaigns, so I think this is happening outside the campaign, but it may be affecting the way the candidates are spreading their message.
So hopefully during the course of the campaign not only these efforts of distraction cease but also the parties themselves come together and make some statements to distinguish those things that belong to the private sphere of citizens and those that are in the public interest that have to do with very important things such as jobs, development and political change in country.
Has the UEC learnt much from this experience to be able to improve itself in the lead-up to the next election in five years?
I have to say that I have seen, in the short time in this country of course and from what I know of the elections in the past the level of professionalism from the UEC is improving steadily and I think if these elections are conducted in the same way that it has been conducted so far, perhaps with some areas of improvement of course, we may be witnessing an institution that can grow in public confidence and that is very important transition to having some reference points, institutions that people can trust and can put their confidence in during the way forward. … I think the UEC has grown their capacity and confidence to bring proposals to the table that may be based in their own experience. Hopefully, the core team of the commission and those commissioners have proved their commitment and dedication to the task are kept and use their experience for building a strong institution for the future.