Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) appears to be preparing for a much more transparent and inclusive parliamentary election in 2015 than we saw in 2010. Its work with civil society, political parties and international organizations already stands in stark contrast to its management of the 2010 balloting. The test of its performance, of course, will be whether the contestants in the election believe the outcome has not been unduly manipulated.
The legacy of 2010
The 2010 elections, which produced the current government, were far from "free and fair." The military junta was still in place, dictating the terms of the elections to the election commission. Military leaders were determined to produce an electoral outcome that delivered the vast majority of parliamentary seats to the government party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). They knew this could not be accomplished in a fair and transparent election, particularly with competition from the opposition National League for Democracy, which had won the vast majority of seats in the 1990 elections.
Therefore, they produced election rules that effectively eliminated the NLD from the elections and forced all government employees, military personnel and many other groups to vote early under the watchful gaze of election officials and USDP members. In many cases, the officials marked the ballots for the voters. When the votes were being counted in constituencies where the USDP candidate was losing, they brought in boxes of "early" ballots to throw the vote to the USDP. Election monitors were not given full access to the voting and counting procedures, and the only international observers were from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
It was no surprise that the USDP, despite being unpopular, won more than 80 percent of the elected parliamentary seats. This plurality, along with the 25 percent of the parliamentary seats occupied by appointed military officers, assured that military and ex-military leaders would control the proceedings of the new parliament.
The promise of 2015
The 2015 elections, planned for late October or early November but not yet scheduled, promise to differ fundamentally from 2010 in several ways. First and foremost, there is no longer a military junta to dictate the terms of the election. Primary responsibility for the elections is now in the hands of the UEC, and not the generals, and the UEC has pledged to run "free and fair" elections to the extent possible.
Because the new government holds itself to be “democratic,” the UEC, in turn, must now respond to the concerns of a wide range of interest groups: the three branches of government, the political parties, civil society and the international community. This will require a degree of consultation and transparency that has been absent from previous elections during the past 50 years.
Second, the NLD, along with a large number of smaller parties, will be competing nationwide against the USDP in a relatively open political atmosphere. These political players are all keeping close watch on the activities of the UEC and so far finding it possible to negotiate when they disagree with new rules. The UEC has, for example, allowed political parties and other participants to comment on proposed election rules and procedures before finalizing them, in contrast to 2010, when the UEC – under pressure from the USDP and the generals – produced arbitrary election rules.
Third, it appears that early voting will be limited and carefully monitored, although detailed rules have not yet been made public.
Finally, the 2015 elections promise to be open to full monitoring by local political and civil society organizations and widely observed by international groups. Under these conditions, it will be very difficult for the government to repeat the voting irregularities of 2010.
The UEC agreed to most of the points that CSOs demanded changes on and it is amazing that they agreed.
The UEC has, for example, been developing a working partnership with civil society organizations (CSOs) to monitor the 2015 elections. In December, the UEC provided them a draft code of conduct for election monitoring, asking for comments. In mid-February, the UEC met with over 60 local civil society and international organizations, accepting most of their suggestions and promising to produce a final draft within two weeks. This has resulted in changes to about two-thirds of the original draft code of conduct, with an entire chapter on “Prohibitions” being removed.
“The UEC agreed to most of the points that CSOs demanded changes on, and it is amazing that they agreed,” said a project manager of the Election Education & Observation Partners (EEOP) – a consortium of civil society organizations.
The UEC also has been developing new voter lists to produce a centralized voter roster that will allow members of the public to file appeals if they believe someone has been wrongfully included or excluded. The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), which follows the work of the UEC, said that because of criticism of the voter lists in the 2010 balloting and the 2012 parliamentary by-elections, the UEC has now arranged to computerize the data for all eligible voters nationwide at a central location in Naypyitaw.
Voter lists are being compiled in three stages, with preliminary results released sequentially in January, March and May, and the final voter list to be announced three months before the elections. PACE is satisfied so far that the UEC is being responsive to public concerns, but they will reserve final judgment until they are certain of full transparency by the UEC.
The greatest challenge to the UEC's impartiality will come from its relationship with the government USDP, which dominated and thus corrupted the conduct of the 2010 elections. The USDP already has many advantages built into the election system, inherited from its former existence as a mass mobilization organization for the previous military government. These advantages include many financial and material resources throughout the country, which are likely to be challenged by competing political parties both in the parliament and with the UEC. Such challenges would not have been possible in 2010.
Nonetheless, while the UEC seems determined to produce an inclusive and fair process, it remains to be seen whether it can overcome the pressures from the old guard. A coalition of the U.S., the European Union and five European nations released a statement last week affirming their support for free and fair polls, according to The Irrawaddy newspaper. The signatories all agree that “holding credible elections this year is an absolutely vital step in the reform process,” according to Andrew Patrick, Britain’s ambassador to Burma.
Priscilla Clapp is a former charge d’affaires and chief of the U.S. mission in Burma who now works with the U.S. Institute of Peace on Burma projects.