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Asean Affairs  15 May  2015

Washington Needs a More Holistic View of Myanmar’s Elections

By Phuong Nguyen (@PNguyen_DC), Research Associate, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

Myanmar’s upcoming national elections, expected in early November, will be an important test for its reform process. Many in Washington, in particular U.S. lawmakers and human rights activists, will be looking at the outcome of the voting as one of the factors determining future U.S. policy toward Myanmar. As such, knowing what to expect will help set the tone for the U.S. perception of and response to the elections.

The phrase “free and fair elections” has often been held up as the yardstick by which to measure the elections. However, a more holistic view, which places the poll in the context of Myanmar’s political trajectory, should instead look at whether the elections will meet the criteria of being inclusive, transparent, and credible.

To put things in perspective, as businessman Serge Pun said recently at CSIS, Myanmar’s democracy was at exactly zero years of age in 2010, when the previous military government engineered what many considered a sham election to pave the way for a transfer of power to the current government. A by-election held two years later was viewed as more credible and saw opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, win 43 out of 44 contested seats. However, expecting the 2015 elections to be free and fair by the standards of an established democracy, or that its outcomes will be to the liking of foreign governments, is probably unrealistic.

The elections will determine only 75 percent of parliamentary seats—at both the national and local levels—since 25 percent of the seats are reserved for military officers. Yet within these limits, there is still ample room for the government, as well as domestic and international stakeholders, to push for an election process and voting conditions that encourage voters, candidates, political parties, and the media to exercise their democratic rights to the fullest.

For the election to be seen as inclusive, the vast majority of citizens need to be allowed to vote, especially in ethnic and conflict areas. Ethnic minority groups make up over one third of Myanmar’s population. In 2010, the government canceled voting in many parts of five ethnic states out of fear that ethnic armed groups could mobilize their troops to intimidate voters. Government officials have been in talks with ethnic rebels to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement, and whether the two sides can resolve the issue of the role of ethnic armies ahead of the elections will be an important factor in the government’s decision to allow voting to take place in ethnic areas.

In an encouraging development, eight ethnic representatives have recently been appointed to the Union Election Commission, a body overseeing the electoral process but that has long been criticized as being close to the military, in an effort to gain more input from ethnic constituents.

Just as importantly, the election commission will need to follow through on its pledge to ensure that ethnic minority people who currently do not have temporary identification papers can participate in the elections. These individuals, many of whom have been internally displaced due to armed conflicts or because they belong to the disenfranchised Muslim Rohingya group, could number close to a million.

The government recognizes that having an election seen as credible is in its best interests. It has for the first time invited international observers, including the U.S.-based Carter Center and representatives of the European Union, to help monitor the upcoming elections. The role of international observers in this process will be absolutely crucial, and the government’s willingness to work with these groups should be seen as a positive sign. The commission has reportedly developed a code of conduct for and in consultation with both foreign and national observers, and according to the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, continues to engage stakeholders including civil society, political parties, and the media. It has also worked to update and digitize voter lists with international support.

Myanmar has been in election mode for at least the past year. Once the government announces an election date sometime in August, the campaigning period will kick off in September. As the political season heats up, policymakers in Washington will want to keep a close watch on whether and how well the election commission continues to adhere to international election standards.

For the election to be seen as transparent, the government needs to allow media outlets the freedom to cover political developments related to the elections. While the media has been granted an unprecedented level of freedom since 2012, journalists have been intimidated in recent months for reporting critical of the government. Many observers will be scrutinizing developments in Myanmar as the election date approaches, and incidents involving harsh treatment of journalists will without doubt come across as a red flag that will prompt the U.S. and other western governments to speak out.

While the process leading up to the elections is important, what happens during and in the aftermath of voting day will be watched even more closely. The body in charge of security matters for the elections is the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is controlled by the military and whose minister reports to the country’s military commander. How this government agency facilitates voter safety and responds to potential electoral violence—especially in ethnic areas—will speak volumes about whether the military intends to play a constructive role in the elections and safeguard the reform process.

The International Crisis Group noted in a recent report that the period after the elections in November and before the next government takes office in March 2016 will be fraught with uncertainty and anxiety. A presidential electoral college will meet in February to pick the next president from the winning political parties or coalitions. This period will present a major test for Myanmar’s democratic process among the country’s top political leaders, several of whom have made clear their presidential ambitions, as well as among the populace, which has felt increasingly empowered but is still new to the workings of a democracy.

If the election results cannot be accepted by the different stakeholders, that could lead to tension and unrest, which, in a worst-case scenario, could trigger the military to step in on the premise of restoring law and order.

These areas by no means represent an exhaustive list of things to watch during a year that could make or break Myanmar’s international reputation. However, if the government continues to show a willingness to create a climate in which the elections can be held peacefully and are seen as inclusive, credible, and transparent, that alone will represent meaningful progress in Myanmar’s reform efforts.

Stakeholders in the United States can play a constructive role by setting their perceptions of and responses to this election within the context of Myanmar’s political reforms over the past five years rather than measuring them by a Western ideal that is unattainable in a few years. At the same time, Washington needs to communicate with Naypyidaw that violating some of the basic standards of democratic elections would bring about a reevaluation of U.S. policy toward Myanmar.

Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog

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