RANGOON — Union Election Commission (UEC) chairman Tin Aye has vowed that the “internal affairs” of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will not be allowed to negatively impact Burma’s Nov. 8 election, following news this week that parliamentary leader Shwe Mann was purged from its leadership.
The high-profile ousting of Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, who had until Wednesday served as chairman of the USDP, has raised concerns about possible ramifications for a vote due to take place in less than three months.
Of particular alarm for many, including the US and British embassies, was the deployment of armed state security forces to the USDP’s headquarters in Naypyidaw as the decision to remove Shwe Mann was taken on Wednesday night.
“This is their internal problem. There is no way it will harm the election,” Tin Aye told The Irrawaddy on Friday, pledging to see to it that the general election goes forward as planned on Nov. 8.
The dramatic reshuffling of the ruling party leadership on Wednesday night was followed by a USDP press conference on Thursday in Naypyidaw, where it was announced that the party’s vice chairman Htay Oo would jointly chair the party alongside President Thein Sein.
A USDP statement ostensibly explained the move by saying that with elections approaching, “now is the time [for a different joint chairman] to focus more on the party’s functions,” relieving Shwe Mann of those obligations and allowing him to focus on his speakership.
But the leadership change, coming after months of reports about a growing rift between the president and party chairman, were almost universally interpreted in more Machiavellian terms.
“I am facing two issues; first is the flooding and now it’s the USDP problems,” Tin Aye said. “Even for the bigger problem, the flooding, I have arranged to overcome it. The USDP problem is their internal issue, but if this threatens to harm the election, I will prevent this using the law.”
Tin Aye is himself a former senior member of the ruling USDP, who renounced his party affiliation after Thein Sein selected him to chair the UEC in 2011. Since his appointment, the chairman has made a point of insisting that he is capable of serving as a nonpartisan arbiter of the upcoming vote, amid concerns that his previous ties to the party could compromise the vote and preparations leading up to it.
The USDP shakeup adds one more potential headache for Tin Aye in his efforts to hold a credible election in just over 12 weeks’ time, coming on the back of intense criticism over voter list inaccuracies and widespread flooding across much of the country that has affected more than a million people and hampered UEC electoral preparations.
Addressing the logistical difficulties that the flooding has presented, the UEC extended the deadline for political parties to submit their candidate rosters by a week, and has said it will issue special identity cards to ensure the right to vote for flood victims who have lost their identity documents in the high waters.
“We also lost some voter lists,” Tin Aye said of the flood-related complications. “But there is no need to worry since we kept all the data on a main server and we will repost everything.”
He said as of Friday morning, on the last day for candidate submissions, that no application had been received from Thein Sein, seemingly confirming that the president would opt out of the nationwide vote. The party, pre-reshuffle, had said that the president would not contest for a parliamentary seat.
That does not rule out a run for re-election to the presidency, however; vice presidents, and by extension the president, do not need to be sitting members of Parliament and can be chosen from outside the legislature by the new set of lawmakers elected on Nov. 8.
The UEC chairman confirmed that Friday would be the last day for parliamentary hopefuls to file for candidature.
“I will not give more time for candidate submissions,” he said.
As of Thursday, one day before the deadline, 5,408 candidates had submitted their candidate forms, comprising names from 89 political parties and 232 independents.