Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week we’ll be discussing how parties go about engineering electoral frauds and if the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) can win the November election fairly. Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, director of election monitoring for the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), and independent candidate U Ye Myint Thein, who will seek election to the Shan State Parliament, have joined me for the discussion. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English edition of the Irrawaddy.
Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, both local organizations and the international community believe that the USDP only won the 2010 election through manipulation. The reason for this thinking is that the USDP won about 75 percent of the vote in 2010 but only won one seat in the 2012 by-election. Moreover, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), often seen as an election favorite, did not contest in that constituency. Is there any validity in these claims?
Ye Kyaw Swar Myint: There were indeed widespread criticisms by local organizations and the international community regarding electoral fraud in the 2010 election. And these criticisms are all justifiable. But even a cursory look at international elections, especially elections in nascent democracies, reveals that ruling parties usually try to retain power through the ballot box. There are lots of examples of this happening in Asia as well as across other continents.
KZM: Can you say what methods the USDP would use to rig the election?
YKSM:Party members would most likely try to buy votes. In Cambodia and Sri Lanka, for instance, countries close to us, vote-buying and coercion are common features of elections.
KZM: Over 90 parties, including the ruling party, will contest the election. What kind of vote rigging can we expect in the coming election? In 2010, for instance, the USDPobtained an unfair advantage in the election through advance voting. Should we expect something similar this time around?
YKSM: We’ll have to wait and see. The UEC has started to talk more openly about how advance voting works to voters, the international community, and observer groups. This means that we’ll be able to monitor more effectively.
Advance voting is still an issue, but what we’re more concerned about is general voter awareness. People are not well informed about the electoral process, and even if they know how to cast a vote, they often don’t how to cast it correctly. What’s more, if voters think that there’s a possibility that someone could find out whom they voted for, they might feel pressured into casting a vote for the USDP.
Another problem is the voter registration card. Previously, voters couldn’t cast a vote without their voter registration card. But now, if the voter is registered on the voter list, he can cast a vote even if he does not have a voter registration card. It’s possible that this could lead to information overload for voters, which the USDP may try to leverage to its advantage. We’ll have to monitor this closely.
KZM: Media outlets have been reporting recently that in some places, generals-turned-candidates have been carrying out campaigns. They make large cash contributions under the name of some regional development project in the constituencies they are contesting. The media have reported that some ministers are doing the same. Isn’t this merely an indirect way to buy votes?
YKSM: This isn’t a clear-cut issue. We don’t have an explicit code of conduct on how active high-ranking officials, such as ministers and cabinet members who have recently retired in order to contest an election, should behave during a campaign period. And this is a problem.
KZM: U Ye Myint Thein, do you see any such vote buying being done either by USDP members or by cabinet members, whether in Kalaw or other parts of Shan State?
Ye Myint Thein: Yes, I do. The incumbent government is made up of USDP members and so is the Shan State government. When the government allocates regional development funds, it does so through USDP lawmakers. People get the funds, but as the funds were mostly handed over by USDP members, it looks like the USDP is distributing the funds. This is misleading. But what can we do? A USDP candidate, National League for Democracy candidate, and Danu candidate will be contesting the same constituency as me. So far I have not seen any individual donations made by the NLD and Danu candidates. The USDP candidate, however, is making donations everywhere. Making donations is a good thing. But as the candidate is only making donations when the election is just a couple of months away, I question the intentions behind the donations.
KZM: You’re not worried that you might lose if you have to compete with people who have money and power?
YMT: Personally, I am not worried.
KZM: You’re not worried about fraud?
YMT: Let me explain. We can’t afford to spend the [maximum] 10 million kyats ($7,845) electoral expenditure cap set by the Union Election Commission (UEC). At most, we can only spend 5 or 6 million kyats. We can’t afford to spend all 10 million kyat. Again, I am not worried about competing with them because UEC chairman U Tin Aye has said that the advance votes have to arrive at the polling station in the morning. Previously, they were allowed to arrive in the evening.
KZM: Before 6am?
YMT: Yes, before 6am.
YKSM: The advance votes cast by voters outside the constituency are allowed to arrive by 4pm, before the polling stations close, while advance votes cast by voters inside the constituency must arrive before the polling stations open. There are two types.
YMT: These are the rules. But the question is, how effectively can we enforce these rules? Again, the cooperation and participation of the people is important. The USDP-led government has formed development support committees at different levels. The USDP may get votes from these committee members as advance votes. These people probably wouldn’t want to offend the USDP and therefore may cast advance votes for the USDP instead of going to the polling station. We have to question this.
KZM: Will the ruling party win the election if it’s free and fair?
YKSM: The next two months will be crucial. We will see if candidates have learned any lessons over the past five years and can admit to and address some of our country’s past shortcomings and failures. Voters also feel these shortcomings and failures, because even though our country is not politically mature, voters have a strong sense of political awareness. The election will hinge on if and how candidates are able to leverage their understanding of what’s best for voters, and for our country more generally, in their respective campaigns over the next two months.
KZM: I agree that the election needs to be free and fair. The post-election period begins when power is transferred to the new government after election results have been released. During this period, the question on everyone’s mind will be the following: If one of the opposition parties wins a majority of votes, will it be recognized by the ruling party? There’s a fear that the results, if they’re not favorable to the ruling party, will be annulled as they were in the 1990 election. Is it possible that this might happen again?
YKSM:Critically, election observers this time will be able to tell if the electoral process is fair and the election results credible. Thanks to the monitoring methods that will be used, we will be able to verify the results, whatever they are. As for your other question about a transfer of power, no one knows. I think that key political figures should hold a dialogue before the election. Pre-election dialogues have yielded positive benefits in other countries.
KZM: U Ye Myint Thein, what is your take on the national election?
YMT: People now are more educated. We’ve seen voters on the whole cast more diversified ballots. Take Shan State, which consists mostly of ethnic villages. In 2010, in a village of 1,000 people, 900 of them would have voted for the USDP, and only about a dozen for the National Unity Party (NUP). In the 2012 by-election, by contrast, local ethnic parties received about half of the 1,000 possible votes, and the NLD received about 300. This is to say that people have become more open, and they’re not voting monolithically for a single party. We might be able to assume from this that people are thinking more on an individual level and that they’re not simply following a particular party line. So if the coming election isn’t rigged, we can expect to see a more competitive election, and one in which the most popular candidates win.
KZM: Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint and U Ye Myint Thein, thank you both for your contributions