The significance of Myanmar’s 2010 election

Introduction

If the 7 November 2010 Myanmar election was a sham election, as many critics alleged, it was a very ambitious “sham”. There were around 30 million registered voters; more than 3,000 candidates for more than 1,100 parliamentary seats; almost 40,000 polling booths and more than 150,000 electoral volunteers and staff.

Nevertheless, the election was an exceptionally low-profile event, marked by considerable public apathy plus a political boycott by some parties, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and many others. The emphasis on ensuring it was a highly controlled, managed affair also deterred people from voting. The expected dominance of the government party, the Union Solidarity Development Party or USDP, and the likelihood that it would not be “free and fair” also significantly discouraged people from believing it was a genuine election or that it was important to vote.

On voting day, there was almost no signage anywhere to indicate where voting was being held. Unlike in the previous elections in 1990, there were no crowds of people waiting to vote. During the short, six-week election campaign, there were few public meetings; no saturated media coverage (but much more coverage of issues than normal); candidates very keen and enthusiastic, but others turned off. On the day, voter turn-out appeared to be low, although no official figures were issued.

Polling day was essentially peaceful. No incidents of any note occurred during the voting, despite some predictions that there would be protests of some kind. Voters encountered numerous “administrative” problems on polling day, many of which were apparently impossible to resolve on the day. Not all of these could be attributed just to administrative incompetence; some must have been caused by deliberate decision and/or oversight. In the week or so before voting took place, a major internet outage occurred which the authorities claimed was the result of an external attack on their system and which “miraculously” ended the day after the vote.

Election Design: How much “freedom” was attributable to the elections?

The elections had quite an ambitious goal of allowing all voters either 3 or 4 votes (for three assemblies plus voting in for extra seat, depending on whether voters had an additional vote as a member of a significant minority group for which there were reserved seats in the assemblies). Arrangements also included early voting, absentee voting, and overseas voting by Myanmar citizens, most of which had also been implemented in earlier elections, but these all involved a great deal of preparation and implementation.

Procedures under the “independent” Election Commission, were complex and bureaucratic, particularly for smaller, non-government parties. Costly procedures applied when registering parties, or candidates or campaign activities; a pattern of slow (or nil) responses by Election Commission generated frustration and resentment; short deadlines applied for most processes, increasing the pressure on small or independent candidates; but only three parties were officially rejected

The exclusion of sensitive areas from voting in a few border regions meant quite a number of people could not vote, showing up incomplete government control over significant regions. Some fighting that occurred on polling day on the Thai-Burma border was not directly related to the election, but was rather the product of longstanding differences and tensions between the state authorities and local groups. (The government eventually suspended its clumsy attempts to settle the issue of whether armed ethnic militia should be brought under the Myanmar Army as Border Guard Forces, leaving this as one piece of “unfinished business” to be dealt with after the elections.)

From the outset, the Election Commission had claimed that election observers were not necessary, even rejecting an ASEAN offer to send observers. The use of members of the diplomatic corps as “observers” for the vote was not really a substitute for lack of “monitors” who could add their expert voice to critiques of the election process. Official international observers would probably not have made much difference, given that there was in fact a small and unobtrusive unofficial international presence (of journalists and others).

Participation: Was the election sufficiently inclusive?

Some 37 parties participated in the election, including parties representing all major ethnic groups, although not necessarily the main parties for the particular ethnic groups (e.g. the Kachin Progressive Party was excluded because its leaders were formerly associated with the out-of-favour Kachin Independence Organisation). Conscious of the possible impact on voter turnout of the election boycott advocated by the NLD and some other parties, the Government launched a sustained — but not especially subtle — media campaign to persuade people of their “duty” to vote. In the week before the election, government media carried numerous articles and editorials urging people to vote and to elect “reliable” representative to the various assemblies.

While the USDP was expected to win overall, the party leadership sought to avoid being complacent,  mindful of the disaster that beset pro-government candidates in 1990, and went to great lengths to maximize the USDP vote. As well as nominating very senior generals from the government (including the Prime Minister General Thein Sein), many prominent individuals and business and community leaders were coopted as candidates by the USDP.  Generals who were nominated as candidates often stood in constituencies where they were born but might not have visited in recent times; many generals made sure of their victory by returning to their constituency to win local support, offered incentives to voters in return for their votes, and unprecedentedly sought to sound out voters on what they wanted from the Government. These were pronounced behaviour changes.

Non-participation by the NLD, the Karen National Union (KNU) and some other groups associated with the NLD, was a significant negative factor for the electoral process. Moreover, 2,200 political prisoners remained in custody, despite reports that there would be a general amnesty before the elections (as there had often occurred on previous comparable occasions).

The creation of regional assemblies with strong local representation ensured a broader demographic profile in the political process. While this could make substantive difference in the future, it is hard to see strong central control disappearing.

Election management: Was there any sort of “level playing field”?

The Election Commission set short deadlines for parties and candidates, was generally bureaucratic and slow in dealing with non-government parties, and was apparently not disposed to apply rigorous rules to the government USDP party. They were, for example, slow to pick up irregularities or to investigate the many allegations of rules breaches by the government party, even  when  these were reported quickly and prominently.

Press censorship was an ever-present factor, but there were surprisingly few reports of significant intrusions or restrictions. Some candidates took a calculate risk of not complying fully with all rules, such as the requirement to clear the text of any speeches in advance. A pervasive presence of security officials at all times was a feature of the election campaign; for some people this might have been offensive and intimidating, although generally people are fairly accustomed to their presence, and there were few reports of security officials interfering in campaign activities.

The government USDP party was exceptionally well-funded compared to others (most of whom were operating on shoestring budgets). All parties used posters, media inter views and other advertising, in moderation; only the USDP resorted to “incentives” and threats, if voters did not support them.

Election volunteers seemed quite well trained to handle routine problems, but not to deal with unusual complaints; mostly orderly voting. Party representatives were also present at polling stations but were apparently not in sufficient numbers to monitor, threats all used but all incidents.

While voting was on the whole conducted reasonably well, counting of the votes clearly exposed problems. The delivery of large quantities of “early” votes to the polls without proper checks or verification raised major questions about the fairness of the process when it became apparent that most early votes proved to be for the government party and early “leads” by anti-government candidates vanished.

Outcomes

As anticipated, few major political changes arose from the elections, which were seen at the most as a first step in a longer transition. They were not expected to bring “democracy” to Myanmar and have certainly not done so. They have probably not even delivered a very different government, although we will have to await the announcement of the composition of the new government, which is due within 90 days of the elections.

However, the military regime has achieved a multi-party elected parliament for first time in 50 years. It also achieved quasi-“civilianisation” of government, albeit run by the same people without their uniforms. The elections also create a new level of political power to reflect quasi-federal nature of the Burmese nation, but the prospects for effective functioning of the new regional assemblies is not clear. Successful local candidates will be looking to accomplish some real progress close to home.

The standing of the USDP or government party victory was consolidated through its achievement in winning 76% of the elected seats. However, the election has probably polarised latent anti-USDP attitudes as well, especially with the apparent “rigging” of the final results. The blatant nature of the “ballot box stuffing” shocked and angered ordinary people, and deprived the election of any legitimacy it might have had. Generally, USDP/regime election tactics caused even greater cynicism about the government than before, and will leave a lasting negative legacy.

Only a small number of anti-government representatives will be present in all assemblies; some coalitions are likely, but how effective can they be? Will the modest political space created by the elections disappear? Or will political activists raise their voices again? Military control to continue from behind the scenes in same way? Or some differences? Relations with former military and business cronies could evolve in unexpected ways. Generally, it will be necessary to watch and see what develops.

Outcomes still not clear

We still do not know how the various assemblies will actually function. Will they be serious representative parliaments or just rubber stamps? At the practical level, how will parliamentary business be initiated and then handled? How often will the assemblies actually meet? Will they organise a committee system to assist in handling business.

How will the army exercise its power in future? Will the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) continue or will a new military apparatus emerge? What will Senior General Than Shwe’s role be, if he does not become President? What role will unelected leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, and the government’s business cronies play, politically and economically? What will be the fate of other political prisoners? Will the democracy movement inside and outside Myanmar be significantly affected?

What role will international partners play after the elections? The world will probably have to recognise the government, but will any “engagement” with the new government be any different from before? Will sanctions be lifted or eased, as Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be suggesting? How and when might any changes of this kind occur? To what extent will the next government be “more of the same”, and how far will government leaders go in trying to implement policies laid out in the 2008 constitution but not yet enacted, such as freedom of association?

Trevor Wilson is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

Election Reading List

Burma Lawyers’ Council, “The Rule of Law and Democratization: An Analysis Of The Forthcoming 2010 Election in Burma from a Human Rights Perspective, 11 November 2009.

International Crisis Group, “Myanmar: Towards the Elections”, Asia report No 174, 20 Jakarta/Brussels. August 2009.

International Crisis Group, “The Myanmar Elections”, Asia Briefing N°105, Jakarta/Brussels. 27 May 2010.

International Crisis Group, “China’s Myanmar Strategy: Elections, Ethnic Politics and Economics” Asia Briefing N°112, Beijing/Jakarta/Brussels, 21 September 2010

Myanmar Election Commission, “Directive No. 2/2010”, The New Light of Myanmar 23 June 2010.

Richard Horsey, “Countdown to the Myanmar Elections”, Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum Briefing Paper, Social Science Research Council, New York. 24 August 2010.

Richard Horsey, “Myanmar: A Pre-Election Primer”, Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum, Social Science Research Council, New York. 18 October 2010

Richard Horsey, “Outcome of the Myanmar Elections”, Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum, Social Science Research Council, New York. 18 November 2010

Transnational Institute, “Unlevel Playing Field: Burma’s Election Landscape”, Burma Policy Briefing No 3, Burma Centrum Nederland, October 2010

Transnational Institute, ”Burma’s 2010 Elections: Challenges and Opportunities”, Burma Policy Briefing No 2, Burma Centrum Nederland, June 2010

Win Tin “Myanmar’s prison of an election will also be ASEAN’s”, Jakarta Post, May 27, 2010