Taken from Myanmar Times

All eyes are on Myanmar ahead of November 8. But this election is not just about the choices the voters will make – it is a test of the government’s commitment to a “free and transparent” process.

A polling station official seals a box used to accept advance votes at a polling station in Yangon on October 30. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

A polling station official seals a box used to accept advance votes at a polling station in Yangon on October 30. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

Problems associated with the election have already come to the fore, notably delays associated with overseas voting and complaints about errors in the voting list. At issue is a deep-seated lack of trust in the electoral process, from the body that administers the election, the Union Election Commission, to the powers that be.

According to the 2015 Myanmar Asian Barometer Survey conducted earlier this year, only 36 percent of respondents have trust in the UEC, with 72pc not convinced the election will be fully “free and fair”. This is despite repeated assurances that an open, competitive election will be conducted.

The public is mindful of developments in 1990 when the results were later dismissed. Given the military’s assurance to respect the outcome of the November 8 vote, it is unlikely to happen again this time. But the problem of building trust in the electoral process is more important than ever.

A key step in building confidence is to dissect the various integrity challenges and to identify the areas where attention can focus to assure a respected electoral process. It is also important to acknowledge the steps the government has taken to strengthen electoral integrity. The 2015 election offers the government an opportunity to show that it can keep its word.

Legal imbalances and structural limitations

Analyses of electoral integrity distinguish between three different areas: systemic problems; malpractice; and vulnerabilities to fraud.

Most of the substantive concerns with the 2015 election fall into the first category, systemic problems. The 25pc of seats reserved for the military and the exclusion of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency are perhaps the most prominent examples. These issues stem from the constitution, which was written with these limitations and has not been amended.

The disenfranchisement of an estimated 1 million holders of temporary IDs known as white cards is another example tied to the legal framework. The 1982 citizenship law and legal exclusions last year disqualified white-card holders. Those disenfranchised are concentrated in Rakhine State but extend to other areas.

Legal grounds were also used to disqualify 75 candidates, or 1.2pc of those who applied to contest. The UEC reinstated 34 candidates, largely Muslims, after protests were lodged and evidence showed these candidates met the legal citizenship requirements. The malapportionment of Myanmar’s electoral system, which gives greater weight to less populated townships, is also a systemic imbalance in the elections grounded in laws.

Some laws were changed before the election that have positively impacted the process. Most of these involved the campaign, which was extended to two months. A code of conduct was also introduced. These changes came about through UEC-led consultations with political parties and civil society.

Other problems stem from a lack of clear laws. Campaign finance is an example. Allegations of vote buying and excessive use of funds in campaigns have been made, notably in Kayah State. The laws focus on party candidates themselves, rather than donations by others, and these grey areas have not been properly regulated. The campaign has favoured parties and individuals with greater resources, a feature that is common globally in elections and one of the most contested problem areas.

Beyond legal dimensions, a systemic problem that mars the elections is conflict. Elections will not be held in a total of seven townships and more than 400 other village tracts and wards. Most of these are concentrated in three areas – the Wa Self-Administered Region, and Kachin and Shan states – and the excluded areas are broader than in 2010. The criteria for selecting these excluded areas is not clear, with inconsistencies raised about polling taking place in some areas, such as Kokang, where fighting continues.

Administrative failings

Other issues connect to malpractice and weaknesses in administrative capacity. Most of those administering the polls on November 8 will be doing this for the first time. There are bound to be legitimate mistakes, despite concerted efforts to train personnel. The key will be assessing the intentionality involved. The pressure is on the UEC to meet its responsibilities as it will have to overcome deep suspicions. It will need to go beyond expectations, to reinforce respectful public engagement and work collaboratively with observers and citizens alike.

The problems of malpractice have concentrated on the voting list. This is a flawed document by any measure. The UEC took steps to correct the list by providing two periods for public review (only one is required by law) and made 6.5 million changes. The process was hampered by a weak data source: household lists, which were not properly updated, inconsistent and in some areas wrong. The mobility of Myanmar people in the past five years made obtaining proper records even more difficult. The lack of digitisation of records also contributed to the administrative challenge. Steps to improve the list were delayed, in part by the obstacles of working with multiple government departments and in part due to a failure to appreciate the scope of the task.

Working across government departments that have long operated as silos has been a challenge for governance in Myanmar broadly. This came to the fore in the overseas voting, where an estimated 4 million voters were not included on lists in foreign missions due to inadequate outreach. When one compares overseas voting of Myanmar with other Southeast Asian countries, the steps are in the right direction. Indonesia and the Philippines took time to put in place their overseas measures, while Malaysia and Singapore have rigid limitations. Nevertheless, those excluded were large in number and this did not set the election on the right tone. This is an area that calls out for better voter engagement.

As the election approaches, the UEC faces the challenge of communicating to the public where they are voting (as polling stations have changed) and responding to the concerns of those not on the voting list. Voter education is another area where there have been calls for improvements. An especially important issue involves the stamping of the ballot, as voters continue to lack an understanding of how to implement this step and to avoid a spoiled ballot. Calls to step up engagement efforts will go a long way to reduce potential confusion and tensions on polling day itself.

Reducing fraud vulnerabilities

The most serious area of suspicion involves potential fraud. The government has introduced the most globally accepted deterrent to double-voting: indelible ink. There are also important measures being taken to protect the integrity of the ballots with seals. Counting will require at least 10 witnesses. Results will also be published publicly, allowing citizens to see the outcome. Importantly, the government has also welcomed more than 200 international observers and accredited over 11,000 domestic observers. This openness to scrutiny signals a genuine commitment to a transparent process.

There are areas, however, that remain of concern. The most questioned involves the advance voting process. There are two types of advance voting – those from inside and from outside of the constituency. Despite guidelines, ambiguity surrounds the timing, allocation and composition of advance voting from outside of the constituency. Of special concern is a potential lack of capacity of observers to monitor advance voting, especially voting that has taken place in government facilities. In light of the fact that advance voting comprised 10pc of the votes in 2010, there are concerns that the advance voting process continues to open the system to fraud vulnerabilities.

Concerns have also been raised about the move away from the digitised and auditable voter list to Excel sheets in some constituencies. This move also opens the system to vulnerabilities. Finally, questions are being asked about the dispute resolution mechanism, which is solely administered by the UEC. More than 100 complaints have already been filed and their adjudication will potentially come under scrutiny and affect outcomes, especially in tight contests.

Reducing these vulnerabilities to fraud will serve to reinforce the positive steps that have been taken to make the November 8 vote the most competitive in a quarter-century. It will also be essential for building trust for future elections.