As Burma’s political parties prepare for landmark general elections slated for Nov. 8, state and divisional election commissioners are also scrambling to educate the electorate, increase capacity and implement quality control procedures.
Amid the excitement, Aung Htut, chairman of the Mandalay Division Election Commission, speaks with The Irrawaddy about how he is preparing for polls in Burma’s second most populous region. Preliminary voter lists indicate that there are more than four million eligible voters in the division.
Many internal migrants live and work in Mandalay Division’s Thabeikkyin and Yamaethin townships. What measures has the commission taken to ensure that they will be able to vote?
According to the law, Burmese citizens who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote. As for your question, it depends on the wish of the voters. Where does he want to cast a vote? Suppose a person is registered on a household certificate in Shwebo but is working for a company in Mandalay and wants to cast a vote here, he must have lived here for 180 days and be certified as an employee.
If He is neither staff nor student, he needs to be certified by relevant ward authorities, [proving] that he has lived there for 180 days. To do so he needs to be registered as a guest resident at the administration office where he is living. If not, he has to go back to the township he is from. If they have not lived here for 180 days, we cannot do anything for them.
How many voters will there be from Mandalay Division’s many military regiments? Have their voter lists been made public?
We have started compiling the voter lists for soldiers and their families. They will be released together with the final lists before the election.
What measures has the commission taken to allow political parties to campaign in military quarters?
So far, we have not received any instruction [from the Union Election Commission]. Observers and the media will be able to visit the polling stations in cantonment. But we have not yet received any instructions regarding campaigning within them.
The Political Parties Registration Law prohibits exploiting faith for political ends. What punitive actions will the commission take if this rule is violated?
We will take punitive actions under the relevant laws. We have told the parties not to misuse religion. The candidate and his party will be held responsible if the law is broken.
What measures has the commission taken to prevent manipulation of advance votes, as happened during the 2010 election?
Advance votes are to be accepted under two circumstances. The commission will help voters who are outside their constituencies to be able to cast a vote. For example, the [relevant] township commission will take actions according to relevant laws to enable university students, hospitalized patients and those who are in foreign countries to cast votes. Under those circumstances, votes can be cast until 4pm, when the polling stations close.
Under another circumstance, those who are ill, traveling or delivering babies can’t go to polling stations on election day and can cast an advance vote with the ward election commission. Unlike in the past, political parties can accompany the ward election commission when they go to the houses of voters who will cast advance votes. The ward commissioner will go to the voters’ houses with a ballot box.
Voters will cast a vote in an envelope and that will be kept in the ballot box. The ballot box must be handed over before the polling station opens. If it is handed over after the polling station is opened, the votes will be invalid. The list of the number of advance votes cast will be displayed at polling stations. You can check who casts advance votes. The ballots will be counted before the public when polling stations close at 4pm.
When will you begin educating people about how to cast a valid vote?
We will do it when the election draws near. Now the election day has been set and we are working according to procedures. We will ask parties to submit a list of their agents, and we will scrutinize and present a list of constituencies. Then we will recruit polling station heads and staff, and we will train them. When we give the training, we will invite political parties, media and civil society organizations, and we will explain how to cast valid votes.
How many poll workers will be recruited for Mandalay Division?
We’ll mostly recruit educational staff [from the Ministry of Education]. There will be approximately 5,500 polling stations in our division and the number of voters will vary between 300 and 3,000 for each polling station. So the number of polling station staff will vary depending on the number of voters. We have not yet received any particular instruction about recruitment of polling station staff, but we have instructed district election commissions to tentatively select staff.
Will media be allowed to enter polling stations on election day?
The [election] by-law says that those who are allowed by the Union Election Commission can enter polling stations. But so far, we can’t say exactly. A related code of conduct has yet to be issued. What I am sure is that the media can enter the precinct of the polling station and can interview [voters]. When the ballots are counted after 4 pm, at least 10 members of the public can witness the counting. At that time, [the media] can take photos of ballot counting.
The Union Election Commission said that it would issue separate cards for reporters who would be allowed to enter the polling stations. Then the chapters of the UEC will contact concerned divisional information and public relations departments [to ensure access for reporters]. Anyone, including reporters, can reach our commission’s Deputy Director Kyaw Kyaw Soe at 02-64677 or 09-49288133.
As the chairman of a divisional Election Commission, how can you guarantee that elections will be free and fair?
The 2015 election is important. There is a saying “our vote is our future.” If the election commission, political parties contesting election, CSOs, media and people work in collaboration, there is no reason that the election won’t be free and fair. The commission will try its best. And I would like to invite all to join hands for that.