Wary Parties Plan Burma Poll Presence

By San Yamin Aung 22 July 2015

RANGOON — Just over 100 days until Burma’s much-anticipated general election, some political parties have raised the possibility of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) fixing the vote, an allegation that was widespread in the last nationwide poll in 2010.

With that concern in mind, political parties planning to contest parliamentary seats in the Nov. 8 election say they will monitor the USDP by stationing representatives at polling stations and enforcing a Code of Conduct (CoC) that more than 80 parties have agreed to follow.

Formed in 2010 as the political vehicle of Burma’s former military regime, the USDP won more than 75 percent of elected parliamentary seats in the 2010 election, a poll boycotted by the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The result was widely discredited amid numerous reports of voting irregularities and fraud.

“People may cast the votes freely in the coming election, but there could still be manipulation by the ruling party,” said Khin Maung Swe, chairman of the National Democratic Force (NDF).

He said that officers at polling stations could also come under pressure, and stressed the need for international observers to be present to monitor the process in as many polling stations as possible.

Sai Leik, spokesperson for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), told The Irrawaddy that the party would watch that the USDP adheres to the CoC and would publicly expose any violations of the code in collaboration with NGOs and the media.

The CoC is described as a “voluntary instrument,” and violations of its provisions are not subject to legal penalties, in contrast to Burma’s election laws.

“The ruling party needs to contest the election fairly. I am concerned about that,” Sai Leik said.

Sai Aung Myint Khaing, central committee member of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), said that rules and regulations promulgated by the Union Election Commission (UEC) would help prevent the kind of cheating that took place in 2010, when advanced voting is believed to have to been used to swing races in favor of the USDP in several constituencies.

“There is much less of a possibility to cheat on that again,” he said, adding that most parties were more concerned about inaccuracies in preliminary voter lists that could disenfranchise millions of would-be voters, or alternatively enfranchise nonexistent voters.

Ngai Sak, chairman of the Chin League for Democracy (CLD) party, urged closer scrutiny of local officials from the UEC, a nominally independent arbiter of the 2015 polls, who are charged with amending voter lists errors if reported by voters.

“I suspect that the officers of the subcommissions have a feeling that they are working for the current ruling party. The UEC needs to give proper trainings to the polling stations’ officers and subcommissioners,” he said.

He said that some constituencies had in the past seen civil servants coerced into voting for the USDP with threats of termination or offers of promotion, while farmers had in some cases been told their land would be confiscated if they didn’t vote for the ruling party, instilling a culture of fear among the public. Another less blatant form of misconduct, according to Ngai Sak, was the conflation of state-funded development projects with the USDP, creating the potential for voters to interpret government initiatives as partisan generosity.

“Advanced vote manipulation was their old technique. If it doesn’t work in this year, they could use other ways in this year’s election, like vote-buying,” he said.

While acknowledging that UEC rules have been put in place to prevent irregularities in advanced voting, Ngai Sak said it would be important to ensure follow-through on the ground.

“We will put our representatives at polling stations and try our best to watch them,” he said. “But in remote areas where media and observers aren’t able to reach, it is really easy to cheat since there is less security and nowhere to accept electoral dispute complaints. So, [in these locations] there is more potential for the ruling party’s manipulation.”

Saw Ba Lwin from the Phlone-Sqaw Democratic Party, an ethnic Karen party that won nine out of the 15 seats it contested in the 2010 general election, said he was not concerned about manipulation of the vote in November.

“I think this year’s election will have transparency since international and local observers are now allowed to monitor inside polling stations and we will have parties’ representatives in polling stations,” he said.

Tin Maung Oo, a USDP central committee member and parliamentarian representing Rangoon’s Shwe Pyi Thar Township, told The Irrawaddy last week that the ruling party had no intention of manipulating the vote this year, and denied any knowledge of past electoral malfeasance.

“Those are just accusations,” he said. “In the 2010 election, I contested in Shwe Pyi Thar Township and won but to speak honestly, I didn’t even go to the polling stations when they counted the votes.”
Tin Maung Oo went further, casting his how suspicion on those raising the prospect of electoral fraud.

“In the coming election, what we should monitor is not the USDP. The public needs to monitor those who are talking about the cheating. I think they are accusing us with what they heard from international [critics of the 2010 election] and because that is what they want to do in their mind,” he said.

The USDP will contest constituencies nationwide, 1,171 seats, in the coming election, with Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann heading the party’s Elections Winning Committee.

“People will vote for those who could really work for them. There are 330 townships in the country and the public knows which party is working for the development of the villages and townships. We, the USDP, will get the effect of what we have done in the election,” Tin Maung Oo said.

Political parties’ monitoring efforts will be bolstered by civil society and a handful of international election monitoring organizations. Last week the largest coalition of domestic observer groups announced that it would have monitors in more than 100 townships nationwide.