(Mizzima) – The by-elections in Burma marks a historic phase in the country’s transition towards democracy and were extremely significant to sustain the democratic reforms process, the Anfrel foundation said in a statement on Tuesday.
Notwithstanding the results of the elections and the generally peaceful polling process, a lot remains to be done to make elections completely free and fair or at least credible, said the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel), which was established in 1997 to strengthen the democratization process in Asia.
A number of concerns came to the fore during the electoral process, which were described as “irregularities” by a number of groups including Anfrel-Foundation, which was not allowed to observe the elections as an independent body.
Large discrepancies in the voters’ list, attempt to misuse official machineries at the village and district levels by some ruling party candidates, lack of voter education all added to the list of apprehensions, which puts a question mark on the efficiency and management of the electoral process.
Moreover, despite the presence of international observers irregularities still occurred. This indicates the importance of a full-fledged and well-prepared “independent” international observation mission in 2015 general elections. This time, the government’s last minute decision to invite external election observers is 'too little, too late' to ensure adequate, effective, and independent monitoring of the electoral process. Presence of independent international observation groups would only help to provide legitimacy to any electoral process that is well intended and managed efficiently.
However, what also cannot be denied is that the election authorities have attempted to respond to the challenges that they were faced with during the entire process. They were found wanting on a number of occasion, but given the fact that the election system is still new and taking shape, such inconsistencies are bound to happen, especially in a country that is in a transitory phase.
The election results have also provided a window of opportunity for the quasi-civilian government in Burma to continue the reforms agenda. It also gave a chance to the people of the country to express their choice more freely (though voter intimidation and pressure from various vested interest groups were reported) as compared to the previous election in November 2010. The results, which at this point of time appear to favour the Nationalist League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is a reflection of the people’s mandate and that needs to be respected by everyone.
The official results will be announced in a week’s time and it is hoped that the Union Election Commission (UEC) and the government would honour the results and the counting process. So far there are no indications to suggest why the results should not be accepted barring investigation of complaints or allegations against the winning candidates from their rival parties.
The high turn out of voters is an indication of the desire for change towards complete electoral democracy, which the people of Myanmar want. Though no long queues could be seen in any polling stations, voters’ kept trickling in throughout the day. Most of the polling stations opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 4 p.m. as is stipulated by the law.
Whether the outcome of the results would have an impact on the western countries and if it would be used as a benchmark to lift the economic sanctions are concerned remains to be seen. The by-election was only a step and it certainly cannot be the only criteria for lifting sanctions or engaging with the military backed ruling USDP coalition government.
Right now what is important, from an electoral point of view, is the manner in which the UEC handles the cases of irregularities arising out of a number of issues. It is generally expected of any impartial election commission to handle the cases of irregularities in a way that it makes the whole process more credible in the future. The road ahead for Myanmar is obviously 2015 when the country would have its next general elections.
Cases of threats, intimidation and violence, especially the death of a political party worker in Pale in Sagaing constituency on election day, violence in Kyaukpaduang constituency (under Magway division) and stone pelting incidents in Napidaw, Bago and Mandalay division needs to be thoroughly investigated by the UEC applying the highest standards that conform to international norms and principles.
The UEC must also set up an independent investigation into the complaints of irregularities, which took place during the advance voting on the scheduled days that is 30 and 31 March. There are reports of advance voting having been conducted as early as March 16 in some villages in Yangon and nearby Bago constituencies. Reports in the media regarding possible disenfranchisement of voters owing to inappropriate management of advance vote raises serious concern. It must not be forgotten that advance voting caused a major worry in the 2010 November elections.
Reports from independent researchers and local observers suggest that the polling process as is laid down in the polling manual was not followed and different polling stations (ward/village offices) where advance voting was supposed to take did not follow a uniform procedure. In some places the ward offices opened later than the scheduled opening time and in others local election officials went from house to house to collect advance votes even from people residing in the constituency. Advance votes are strictly meant for those that would be engaged/on duty on the Election Day and are residing outside the constituency.
Earlier this month, the UEC announced the list of people eligible to cast early votes, which included election officials, civil servants, elderly citizens, residents with poor health and prisoners.
Proper procedures like sealing on advance voting envelopes and storing them in a secure place such as the police station were not followed in a good number of places. The UEC needs to ensure that all cases pertaining to advance irregularities are subjected to an extensive complaint dispute resolution process and the anomalies are investigated and justice delivered with ay bias or favour towards any one or party.
The Burma by-election is a good case for the Asean community to consider starting an “Asean electoral reforms” process. The Asean secretariat would be best placed to put together various stakeholders from the Asean region with involvement of independent and well-trained election observer groups to use the lessons learned from Burma for strengthening democratization in the region.