Free and fair? Myanmar's poll preparations under fire

Expectations are running high for a possible victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party. But worries are mounting about voter manipulation in the Nov. 8 election. 

Soe Zeya Tun/REUTERS
Officials prepare a polling station ahead of Myanmar's general elections, in Yangon November 6, 2015. Myanmar heads to the polls on November 8.

The quasi-civilian government of Myanmar promises to hold the first credible elections in a quarter century this Sunday after decades of Army rule.

But there are doubts about how free and fair the Nov. 8 elections will be, given a slew of voting list errors, cancellations of local polls and other irregularities. Some observers claim as many as 15 percent of the country's 33 million eligible voters may not be able to cast a ballot. Earlier in February some one million ethnic Rohingya were disenfranchised. 

Many in the political opposition have charged in recent days that problematic polling preparations and decisions by the Union Election Commission (UEC) favor the military-linked ruling party which is seeking to retain power. 

"We have been very concerned by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the UEC to hold free and fair elections," Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), said on Thursday. "We have repeatedly made complaints about the way in which some parties and individuals have been breaking the rules and regulations laid down by the election commission, but very little action has been taken."

High expectations

Dozens of international and local election monitoring organizations are observing Sunday's election for national and regional parliaments. Across the country, expectations are running high for a resounding victory by the NLD over President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Many smaller parties, most representing ethnic minorities, also hope to claim a significant share of the vote. The national parliament will select the country's president and vice presidents. However, a constitutional clause bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the top position. 

Widespread voter list errors have excluded many would-be voters, while some lists reportedly include deceased voters and misspelled names. In recent months, the public could inspect the lists and initiate corrections, but those who did faced onerous bureaucratic procedures.

Election commission chairman Tin Aye, a former general and ex-ruling party member, said in September he could only guarantee about 30 percent of listed names are correct.

Commission officials blamed the problem on technical errors during digitization of the lists. “It’s sufficient, you will see,” says commissioner Win Kyi, adding that problems were being exaggerated as “the media only talk to one person whose name is missing, but not the other 99 who are listed.”

That doesn't convince NLD spokesman, Nyan Win. “We are very concerned about it because in some areas in Yangon, like in South Okkapala Township, our survey found that the names of around 80,000 people are missing,” he says. 

The owner of a grocery store in a crumbling colonial-era building in downtown Yangon said all her family members were missing from the list, despite having applied for corrections. “We are so angry. Not only me, so many people in this area are not on the list,” says the woman, who only gave her name as Yin. “They say it’s because of computer software mistakes… but we think they did it on purpose.”

Scope of problem unclear

Election observers have by and large been positive about the commission’s work and put the voter list issues down to a lack of organizational capacity of its local offices.

Yet in an Oct. 27 briefing, the independent Atlanta-based Carter Center said the scope of the problem is unclear and “the impact of voter list issues remains to be seen.” It said campaigning by parties had been largely unrestricted, though it noted there is a government ban on criticizing the Army.

The election commission has ignored complaints over the activities of nationalist Buddhist monks, who have fanned anti-Muslim sentiments and urged Buddhist majority voters to support the ruling party.

In February, the government took the decision to strip some one million ethnic Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in western Myanmar, of voting rights.

Last week, the election commission cancelled polls in two townships and 450 village tracts affected by conflict in northern and eastern Myanmar. Ethnic parties allege this affects their areas of support; they also worry that fighting could deter rural voters and benefit the ruling party, which mostly has support in towns and cities.

Khun Tun Oo, leader of the Shan National League for Democracy, told The Irrawaddy, a local media outlet, that the cancelled polls had cost his party several seats, adding, “The election is no longer the all-inclusive, fair and free election that they said they wanted.”

NLD's Nyan Win said the party remains confident of victory. But he warned that the poll irregularities could give the USDP enough seats to work with a bloc of unelected military legislatures to determine the next government.

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