The International Crisis Group recently released a report on the 2015 Myanmar election landscape, listing its concerns with the process and assessing crucial issues such as constitutional reforms and the turbulent peace talks.
While covering the history of the country’s former ‘democratic elections,’ the ICG detailed the issues that will affect this year’s long awaited general elections.
For instance, the first-pastthe-post voting system is viewed by some as archaic and in need of change. The system allowed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to gain control in the 2010 polls, when the party secured 58% of the vote, winning them 77% of the seats in parliament.
This system would allow the National League for Democracy (NLD,) if they decide not to boycott the coming polls, to win in a landslide similar to their victory in the 1990 elections where they secured 60% of the votes, allocating them 80% of the seats in parliament.
“Something similar to the 1990 is plausible, when the regime-backed National Unity Party won 21 per cent of the vote but only two per cent of the seats. Similarly, in 2012 the USDP gained one of 45 seats from 27 per cent of the votes – and that one because the NLD candidate was disqualified,” the ICG report noted.
The ICG noted the concerns about the early voting system which in 2010 resulted in massive benefits for the USDP. The system is to be curtailed this time around, as by-laws have been introduced to make it harder for this tactic to be used.
Another reason it is less of a concern is because of expected presence of international monitoring groups being allowed to overlook the election.
A report from the Carter Centre highlighted that even though “… there are significant weaknesses in the constitution with respect to international standards for democratic elections, the legal framework has the potential to facilitate the conduct of credible elections, provided that regulations address key gaps, such as the advance voting process.
Advance voting in the 2010 election by the military and displaced and migrant people was noted as a problem area for those elections.
The Carter Centre report had this to say about advance voting: “The UEC’s commitment to making these parts of the process fully observable will be important to ensuring the credibility of the election.”
Union Election Commission
The Union Election Commission (UEC) was launched by the 2008 military-crafted constitution and then formally constituted in March 2010 to oversee the heavily flawed elections of the same year. Ex-general U Thein Soe, who headed the commission for the 2010 general elections, was disposed a year after the polls amid controversy.
U Thein Soe said in 2010, “We don’t need foreign observers. We have abundant experience in holding elections...we don’t need to clarify the credibility of these elections to other people.”
UEC independence from the regime was low and having been set up 8 months prior to the elections, the committee had neither training nor a master plan on methodology. The UEC relied on local government employees and staff such as teachers in order to help carry out their work.
The new UEC head appointed in August 2012, an ex-general and former member of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), U Tin Aye, is believed to be a close friend of President U Thein Sein.
U Tin Aye oversaw the revamping of the commission and handled the 2012 by-elections, for which he earned some applause in the ICG report and from civil society groups who claimed all operations have been clear and credible.
The by-elections were a test for the transitional government and new UEC for a number of reasons, chief of which was that with international eyes well and truly fixated on the country the polls had to be conducted in a fair manner, which they were as they paved the way for veteran democracy advocate and international figure Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to enter the halls of Nay Pyi Taw.
Reforms within the UEC were pushed through despite having ex-military personal on board. The commission has shown encouraging signs of openness to improvements by allowing international groups to work with them during the 2015 election to making sure everything is transparent.
The ICG report noted that the commission includes Barma Buddhists, drawing attention to the perception of discrimination in Myanmar governance.
Ethnic Groups and Malapportionment One feature of the upcoming election is the large number of ethnic minority parties that will contest the polls. Roughly two thirds of registered parties are based on ethnicity rather than on actual policies.
The largest among the ethnic parties is the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, which ranks third in size after the two leaders - the NLD and USDP. Most of the ethnic parties are small and might benefit from mergers.
A successful merger between ethnic parties is the coalition of the Rahkine National Development Party and Arakan League for Democracy which formed the Arakan National Party in March 2014.
Most of the ethnic minorities have at least two or more parties per state that could divide the ethnic vote to the advantage of the larger national parties.
There are concerns on the voting opportunities of displaced people or ‘white card holders.’ Their status may prevent large groups from voting. There are also concerns about the lack of knowledge about voter registration. People are assigned to booths depending on where they live, so some may have moved and not updated their information which would mean that would be unable to vote in their new areas. Voter registration posters have begun popping up to alert people of this issue.
Malapportionment means, “When smaller populations have equal voting rights to be represented as that of a large population.”
An area with higher populations have diverse demands and needs compared to that of a smaller population.
In Australia, for example, the state of Tasmania has the same amount of representatives as New South Wales in its federal parliament, although the population of NSW is much higher than Tasmania’s. This leads to an imbalance of representation.
Another concern raised in the ICG is over the peace process. After the formation of a draft ceasefire agreement there was increased violence in the Kokang region, a spark of violence in northern Rahkine between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw and the introduction of “unlawful association laws” from the military preventing media from talking with the two aforementioned groups.
In 2010 polling did not take place in some regions around the country as violence prevented it. This time around rebel groups are being encouraged to allow for voting to take place and it seems as though the groups are more than happy to comply with the wishes of Nay Pyi Taw.
As the peace process stubbornly bumps along it is still likely groups will comply despite the past four years being the most violent in decades.
A Karen splinter group struck Myawaddy and Pyathonzu polling booths in 2010 but there was no mention of groups planning attacks in the 2015 elections.
The election day could provide a good opportunity for groups to gain widespread publicity regionally and internationally.
The splinter group of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army briefly occupied a police station and polling booth staging a protest to the 2010 elections that were being conducted.
Around 10,000 fled across the Thai border to flee the small outbreak of violence, leading to the Thai government sending troops to the region as their were reports of stray bullets landing in Thai territory.
It would seem likely though that polling is unlikely to take place is areas like Kokang and northern Rahkine if fighting is a continued possibly. In certain areas in Kachin and Karen states, rebel armies and the Tatmadaw (military) continue to have random showdowns resulting in displacement of civilians.
The post-election period after the tally and before the selection of Myanmar’s next president is another focus point for the ICG report as tensions may surface and how the old power elite may react to the dramatic shift of governance, which would be the case should the NLD enjoy a landslide victory and have an active role in selecting the president.
Asia Program Director of International Crisis Group, Tim Johnston, highlighted a similar concern to Mizzima:
“Voter education is a significant concern. Without understanding how the system works, people can’t make an informed decision. We are worried for example about managing the expectations of NLD supporters who will be disappointed if their party wins a large portion of the vote but Aung San Suu Kyi is unable to take up the presidency.”
The ICG knows there will be shortcomings in the elections but there “…is no inherent reason that the majority of Myanmar citizens will not be able to voice their preference and have their voices heard for the first time in more than half a century.”
This Article first appeared in the May 21, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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