RANGOON — Well done, Burma. That was the overarching message of Jason Carter when he met with the press on Tuesday in Rangoon. The grandson of Jimmy Carter, former US President and Carter Center founder, delivered an unambiguous communiqué that the peaceful voting procedures carried out on Sunday were good enough—with one apparent caveat.
“It’s impossible to deny what we saw on November 8, and that it illustrated a commitment and the potential for this country to expand its democratic principles more broadly, and hopefully more quickly,” Carter said, before addressing one of the few questions left about what the polling commission is about to declare.
The Center’s team and all other international observers were completely denied access to the casting of out of constituency advance ballots, raising concerns among just about everyone familiar with Burma’s 2010 election that those votes could have been manipulated and used to swing tight races and land more seats for powerful members of the ruling party.
As it stands, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is looking at a major landslide win against the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the civilianized successor of the former junta. The opposition leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, told the BBC on Tuesday that her party has won about 75 percent of contested races in the 664-seat Union legislature, granting them a majority and likely the power to select the next president. Twenty-five percent of the assembly is reserved for military lawmakers, leaving her with about two-thirds of total seats.
Suu Kyi herself is ineligible for the presidency due to a clause—which is believed to have been written deliberately to exclude her—disqualifying anyone with a foreign spouse or children. Her late husband was British, as are her two sons. She has said that the party has selected a possible head of state, but that ultimately the power would remain with her should the NLD win the majority.
Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) began announcing the results of the poll—the first nationwide election in the country since the 2011 start of a transition from military rule to democratic governance—on Monday. Four times daily, the commission’s chairman Tin Aye takes to a podium in the capital to trickle out the official score. The NLD secured about 88 percent of Union Parliament seats that had been called at time of writing.
Many races have not been called, though independent reports are flooding into newsrooms and making the rounds on social media. Signs point to enormous gains for the NLD, as the party has publicly declared. Also seeping in are reports of suspicious ballots turning up at polling centers in the farther reaches of the country, mostly in ethnic minority areas where smaller parties appear to have been trounced. Those areas—which so far include Lashio and Taunggyi in Shan State, as well as the Kachin State capital Myitkyina—are also located near sites of ongoing conflict between the current government and a number of armed ethnic groups.
Polling was cancelled for civilians in hundreds of village tracts across the country because of conflict. Burma Army soldiers stationed near those areas, however, retained the right to vote. But did they? A source in Myitkyina alerted The Irrawaddy on Monday that he had seen “thousands” of suspicious ballots arriving from a frontline area after polls had closed at 4pm on Sunday, leaving an ethnic Kachin candidate for the National Democratic Force, a well-known activist named Bauk Ja, “very concerned.”
Military servicemen are entitled to cast out of constituency advance ballots, as are police, trainees, students and citizens living abroad. No one—not even the Carter Center’s observation mission—knows how many of these voters there are.
“We have had no access, nor has any other international observer had access, to observe the casting of those out of constituency advance votes,” Carter declared on Tuesday, just hours after the EU observation mission made the same disclosure. When asked explicitly on Sunday morning whether the Carter Center’s observers had seen any of those ballots being cast, Carter told The Irrawaddy that the group was “not ready” to discuss the terms of their access. Now they are, stating baldly to a room full of reporters that “we have no idea what happened with respect to the casting of the [out of constituency advance] ballots.”
When confronted by local reporters on Tuesday about suspicious votes in Lashio, UEC Chairman Tin Aye sidestepped the question, telling journalists that “you guys misunderstood.” Fellow commission member Myint Naing, also speaking at the Rangoon press conference, informed the crowd that citizens are entitled to lodge formal complaints up to 45 days after election results are disclosed.
The ability of the UEC and other concerned authorities to fairly adjudicate election disputes has been tested, but the results are still out. According to a pre-poll report by the Carter Center, as of Oct. 20 there had been no less than 40 complaints submitted to commission offices and 94 campaign-related incidents reported to the police.
Those submitted to commissions had not been resolved by the time of the report’s publication, and it is unclear how many of the 62 cases being investigated by police had been settled. The Carter Center’s post-poll preliminary statement, published on Tuesday, found the commission’s electoral dispute resolution procedures flawed on several counts. Notably, submitting a post-election complaint costs 500,000 kyat, roughly US$390.
Ben Rhodes, a top advisor to US President Barack Obama, emphasized during a pre-election visit to Burma that the United States would be watching the election and its aftermath carefully to determine how the two formerly estranged countries could continue to build their partnership. Success of the polls, he told reporters on Oct. 22, could “move things forward if it goes well, or, if it does not go well, it could clearly be an obstacle to progress.”
More bluntly, the United States’ top Asia diplomat Daniel Russel told The Irrawaddy in September that the election was “the acid test” of the reform effort. Assessing whether the election went well depends, in part, on international observation missions, coupled with official information from the UEC and reports in the independent media.
“All of that will impact how we look at the conduct and success of the election,” Rhodes said in the former capital, Rangoon. A rubber stamp on the processes leading up to, on the day and after the vote open doors for further engagement, and so far, Burma has passed the first two tests, despite the many flaws leading up to this election.
Not least of them is the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims that were allowed to vote in earlier elections. Also left out were an as yet uncalculated number of villagers in Kachin, Karen, Shan and Mon states, as well as parts of Pegu Division. A flawed constitution, limits on freedom of expression and political space were also of concern, as was what Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland, an Elder and member of the Carter Center’s elite delegation, referred to as very poor representation of women among candidates.
Those defects may well be forgiven when the Center issues its final report four months after the electoral process concludes, in the hope that whoever takes the reins early next year can improve upon them in future polls.