Will COVID-19 and Continuing Armed Clashes Combine to Postpone Myanmar’s Election?

By The Irrawaddy 19 September 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy!

This week, we’ll discuss whether the election might be postponed due to the second wave of COVID-19 cases in Myanmar, how public health can be protected whether the election is postponed or not, and if the election can be held at all in Rakhine State, which is faced not only with the COVID-19 pandemic but also with armed clashes.

Executive director of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) U Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint joins me to discuss these topics. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

Can the election be held on schedule?

The campaign season started on Sept. 8. But semi-lockdowns were imposed the following day, and COVID-19 cases apparently remain on the rise. The virus has spread through Yangon, Sittwe and has reached Naypyitaw. Moreover, it has spread even to Mongla and Myingyan.

Political parties are complaining that they can’t conduct their campaigns under such circumstances. The 2020 election faces a greater burden than the 2015 election because it has to consider the issue of public health, and not just the democratic process.

The Union Election Commission [UEC] seems to want to hold elections on schedule and points to elections that were held successfully in Singapore and South Korea. Do you think the election can be held on schedule, and can the UEC conduct the election effectively under these circumstances?

Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint: The UEC officially announced the election in the first week of July at a time when the infection rate had declined. But within one month, the number of cases increased significantly.

The number has reached over 2,000 over the past few days [Note: The total had risen to 4,299 positive cases by Friday morning.] So, there has been a huge difference between these two times. If the vote is to be held on schedule, the UEC needs to talk with the Ministry of Health and Sports about whether the pandemic can really be controlled.

No matter what social distancing measures are practiced, around 40 million voters out of the more than 50 million population of Myanmar will go out and cast their ballots. It is time the UEC talked with the Ministry of Health and Sports to determine if it can prevent the further spread of the virus on Election Day.

Under the Constitution, the UEC is authorized to hold and announce the election. But now, it is not just about the election. It also concerns public health and public safety. So, it needs to talk with the Ministry of Health and Sports and listen to that ministry’s assessment of the situation.

YN: Compared with other countries, the number of COVID-19 cases is still low in Myanmar. Currently, local and international media are in the process of registering to cover the election.  According to a UEC press conference, it will not decide until Oct. 8 whether to postpone the election.

Until then, the pre-election process will continue, despite complaints from political parties about restrictions on campaigning. But the UEC alone can’t decide whether to postpone the election. The Ministry of Health and Sports has the final say in that matter, as you have said. So, the government will be involved in making the final decision.

Suppose the election needs to be postponed, how long should it be delayed? It took about three months before the first wave of COVID-19 could be brought under control. Considering the magnitude of the current outbreak, I am afraid three months would not prove to be enough. What is your assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of postponing the vote?

SYKSM: The campaign period is from Sept. 8 to Nov. 7. If the semi-lockdown continues to be imposed in many townships, especially in Yangon, which has a large population and a large number of constituencies, political parties will continue to be barred from campaigning in townships where a stay-at-home order is in effect. If parties are not allowed to conduct political activities and campaigns in the campaign period, and voters are merely asked to cast votes on Election Day, that would be a deviation from democratic norms.

Regarding the elections that were held amid the pandemic in South Korea and Sri Lanka—there have long been questions about democratic norms in Singapore—in South Korea, the first thing they considered was to what extent the pandemic could restrict democratic norms.

Despite the pandemic, the minimum norms of the democratic election process must be guaranteed. And there is a need to guarantee the rights of political parties and candidates to freely campaign and drum up support. Now, they can’t campaign in person. But according to democratic norms, they must be able to reach their voters and constituents.

It is important to ensure these basic norms: Voters must be provided with adequate information; voters must not be forced to cast votes in advance; and voters with underlying health conditions must not lose their voting rights due to the pandemic. The UEC’s decision to restrict political parties’ rights to campaign during campaign season has drawn criticism. There is a need to review it.

As to the option of postponing the election, the term [of the UEC] will end on July 31 [next year]. So, the election can be put off to a date any time before that.

If the election can’t be held until the term of the Parliament ends, the Parliament would be dissolved, but the government would remain in office. Then, we would need to discuss with legal experts the question of how long the government can be valid without the Parliament, its legality without the Parliament. This is an important political problem. As I have said, this can’t be decided by the UEC alone. It is a potential political crisis and constitutional crisis. We—political parties, the UEC, the Ministry of Health and Sports and other government agencies—need to talk. Only after that, should we make a decision when there is a general consensus.

YN: Yangon is only faced with the pandemic. But in Rakhine State, there are also armed conflicts. Political parties contesting in Rakhine have security concerns. Suppose elections are held in Rakhine, do you think election observers can monitor the voting there?

SYKSM: Since political parties can’t campaign in person, some people say they can conduct their campaigns online.

But Rakhine has limited access to information. Political parties and voters in Rakhine don’t know how they can participate in the election. They don’t know how they can follow health regulations. They have no information about which candidate is contesting in which constituency. This is a huge challenge for them, as a result of both armed conflicts and the pandemic.

We planned to field 325 observers to monitor the electoral process nationwide. Normally, we would have sought approval for electoral monitoring not long after the election date was announced and then provide training. Normally, we would be ready to start training observers after the UEC announced the election date. But we were only granted approval to monitor last week.

How are we supposed to provide training to 325 people while large numbers of COVID-19 cases are being reported? The UEC has put a limit on how many people can gather. But if someone became infected at a training session, all the observers would have to undergo quarantine for 21 days, and there would be no time left for them to monitor the election.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we decided to provide training online and have had to redesign our training courses. But we can’t provide online training in Rakhine. Seven townships there do not have [full] internet access. We have to take different measures in different townships. I still have no answer about how we can monitor the election in Rakhine. We still can’t even begin the  monitoring process. It is very unlikely that we can successfully monitor the election there.

YN: Finally, how would you describe the relationship between the UEC and PACE? Because you said your organization was only recently allowed by the UEC to monitor the voting?

SYKSM: It was initially not clear whether we would be allowed to monitor the polls. But we did eventually receive approval. At one point, we planned to field about 2,900 observers. We were not able to monitor the release of preliminary voter lists. We have sought approval to monitor the campaign process as well as the vote, but to monitor on election day, we need information from the UEC. We have asked for information from the UEC, and the commission has promised to provide it. We have started making preparations. Only after we receive approval will we know to what extent we can monitor the election process.

YN: Thank you for your contribution.

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