File photo of a young man arranging posters for various candidates at the SNDP office in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, on September 8, 2015. The Myanmar’s Union Election Commission recently announced that voting would be cancelled in parts of the State. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu, AFP)

Will the Real Union Election Commission Please Stand up?

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Recent decisions by Myanmar’s election commission put it in the 8 November election spotlight.

Even before Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) announced the 2020 election dates on 1 July 2020, the country’s worsening Covid-19 pandemic situation occasioned some speculation whether elections should proceed as planned for 2020. The UEC’s mandate provides for the Commission to cancel voting for reasons of either security or natural disasters.

Several political parties called for delaying the elections on the latter grounds. A precedent of sorts exists. In 2015, the UEC flip-flopped over its suggestion to delay the elections due to flooding and landslides in areas hard hit by heavy rains. The “natural disaster” that Myanmar – and indeed the world – faces in 2020, however, is different and not limited to discrete locales.

The spike in Covid-19 cases across the country from late August to September occasioned some discussion on whether and how a possible postponement of the elections might take shape. A pre-election poll found that a third of respondents expressed concern over Covid-19 posing a barrier to voting. But the Covid-19 situation did not deter the election scheduling, although there are now staggered voting dates and vote-from-home programmes for senior citizens.

Last week, the UEC’s election management placed it in the glare of the campaign spotlight again. Late in the evening of 16 October, the UEC announced voting would be cancelled in parts of Rakhine State, Shan State, Kachin State, Kayin State, Mon State and Bago Region, stating that the conditions in these areas were not conducive for conducting free and fair elections due to ongoing fighting between the Myanmar armed forces and ethnic armed groups. Voting will not take place in:

 9 townships and 152 wards/village tracts in Rakhine State
 192 village tracts in Kachin State;
 53 village tracts in Kayin State;
 5 townships and 139 wards/village tracts in Shan State;
 1 village tract in Mon State;
 and 42 village tracts in Bago Region.

In the last general election in 2015, the UEC cancelled voting in some 400 village areas in Kachin State, Kayin State and Shan State, upon similar security concerns.

Even so, the 16 October announcement caused calls for the UEC to explain its criteria for determining these affected areas. The UEC’s announcement lacked clarity on whether it had sought or considered the views and recommendations of ministries and departments involved in dealing with aspects of security, including defence and home affairs. In 2014, the UEC cancelled by-elections for that year, but included in its statement that it had “consulted concerned individuals and organisations”. Then opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed that decision.

Experts maintain that some of the areas where voting is cancelled are not at as high a security risk as other areas where voting still is scheduled to take place.

The Arakan National Party and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy are among the most vocal against the voting cancellations in entire townships in Rakhine State and Shan State respectively. Cancelled voting in these townships will affect parliamentary seats for Rakhine State and Shan State at both Union and state-level, with implications for the parliament’s check-and-balance role (weakened since 2016), and the transparency of debating and voting on bills and motions in the 2021-2025 period. Rakhine State is particularly affected, as the cancelled townships constitute more than half of the 17 townships in that State. 

Experts maintain that some of the areas where voting is cancelled are not at as high a security risk as other areas where voting still is scheduled to take place. For example, voting is cancelled in Mongkung in Shan State but is proceeding as scheduled in Paletwa in Chin State.

Netizens and politicians were still calculating how these cancellations would affect actual representation and elected seats (i.e. those not under the 25 percent allocated for the military) in Myanmar’s parliament, when the following day, a Saturday, the UEC chairman announced the deregistration of the Union Democratic Party or UDP. The UDP, with over 1,100, had the second highest number of candidates contesting for parliamentary seats after the ruling National League for Democracy. This despite several UDP candidates being disqualified from contesting in the elections. Even before the arrest of UDP leader Kyaw Myint in early October, there were queries on the bona fides of the UDP and whether it should be allowed to compete in the elections. This UEC decision only 22 days before polling day came after 2020 ballot slips had been printed carrying the UDP’s candidates and logo. Advance overseas votes have been cast using these ballot slips.

The UEC’s 16 and 17 October announcements, against a backdrop of existing dissatisfaction with its voter list inefficiencies, and efforts to censor political candidates’ televised speeches, have created an atmosphere of doubt for the future of Myanmar’s electoral democracy. Well-run, free and fair elections are an important (but not sole) indicator of a healthy democracy. With all eyes on Myanmar’s democratic transition, the UEC is under the spotlight as it is responsible for providing the government with the necessary resources and support to hold free and fair elections.

Despite all its shortcomings in 2015, election observers and voters in Myanmar saw the UEC’s performance then as an improvement from its management of the 2010 elections. The UEC’s performance in 2020 highlights the importance of addressing issues on the ground in a timely and responsive manner that reflects the realities that many in Myanmar face.

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