Electoral ‘Inflection Point’ Fraught With Challenges: Report

By Andrew D. Kaspar 29 April 2015

RANGOON — A report from an influential international think-tank has raised concerns about Burma’s ability to hold credible elections late this year, while noting that developments over the last five years offer voters a chance at the most legitimate poll in a quarter century.

The much-anticipated national election, expected in early November, “will be a major political inflection point, likely replacing a legislature dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP], established by the former regime, with one more reflective of popular sentiment,” according to a report released on Tuesday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).

Among other issues, the ICG said perceptions of the Union Election Commission (UEC) as biased toward the ruling USDP, security challenges and constitutional shortcomings including a provision barring the country’s most popular politician from the presidency could cast a pall over the polls.

Constitutional reform, pushed for by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and Burma’s ethnic minority groups, is “unlikely” ahead of the vote, according to the report, ensuring that the election is fundamentally undemocratic on at least two fronts: the provision preventing NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi from assuming the presidency, and the military’s constitutionally enshrined political power, which guarantees that 25 percent of more than 1,100 seats in national and regional legislatures will be occupied by unelected military personnel when a new Parliament convenes next year.

The disenfranchisement of up to one million holders of temporary identification cards, most of whom are stateless Rohingya Muslims, and the likely reality that those living in some conflict areas on the country’s periphery will not have a chance to vote looks set to further imperil the election’s credibility.

Though the USDP and NLD will be the only parties capable of competing nationwide, the electoral playing field will be a crowded one, with 71 parties having registered to compete at some level, and the applications of more than a dozen more pending. The scope of the administrative duties tasked to the UEC and its local subcommissions—including educating an ill-informed electorate—and its inexperience mean the electoral body’s capacity “could be severely stretched,” the ICG said.

The outlook is not wholly grim, however, according to the ICG.

It makes note of significant changes to the country’s political landscape since the administration of President Thein Sein took power. The reforms may help ensure a more free and fair nationwide election than its predecessor in 2010, which was widely derided as a flawed poll amid allegations of vote rigging and a boycott by Burma’s most popular opposition party, the NLD.

Improvements in the electoral environment included the holding of a 2012 by-election that was viewed as largely free and fair. That poll saw the NLD take 43 of 44 seats it contested, giving Suu Kyi’s party a foothold in Parliament after it decided to re-engage in the political process.

Presiding over that vote was the UEC, widely regarded as being close to the ruling USDP, with its chairman Tin Aye a former general and senior leader of the party who jettisoned his official partisan affiliation when he took the UEC post in 2011.

The ICG report sought to assuage doubts over the UEC’s independence, however, saying the commission “appears determined to deliver the most credible elections that it can, and has been impressively transparent and consultative.”

A freer media environment and invitations extended to domestic and foreign elections observers would also lend credibility to the electoral process, ICG said.

It lauded changes since the 2010 vote that have lowered the fee for registering as a candidate, while saying that the cost of lodging an elections-related complaint, while halved from 2010 to 500,000 kyats (US$460), remained exorbitant.

The report highlighted an anticipated period for which there is no precedent in Burma’s modern history: the four months between polling day and the required installation of a new government, which will include newly elected parliamentarians’ vote on who will be the country’s next president. The report said the period “will be one of considerable uncertainty, possibly tensions. This is when messy, potentially divisive horse-trading will occur over who will become president, with whose support and what quid pro quos.”

The ICG is no stranger to Burma and has previously offered a largely positive assessment of the reforms carried out by Thein Sein, who was given its “In Pursuit of Peace” award in 2012. Since then, his administration has come under increasing criticism at home and abroad, with widespread concerns that the country’s reform process has stalled.