Burmese President Thein Sein will do his best to hold a free and fair election on November 8, but however hard he tries this election will not deliver democracy.
Whatever he does the constitution has already ensured that the election result can be neither free nor fair, as it gives unelected army officers the balance of power in parliament.
According to Article 436 of the constitution 25 percent of seats in the parliament have to be reserved for army officers and any change to the constitution or other important laws has to receive the approval of at least 75 percent of the MPs.
The army officers in parliament will vote how Ming Aung Hlaing, the army commander-in-chief, orders them to vote, which means the army can block any change of legislation or new legislation that they do not approve of.
When a proposed amendment to Article 436 was put before parliament on June 26 it did not receive the required 76 percent approval as, unsurprisingly, the army decided not to relinquish its power and voted against the amendment.
This means that ultimate power still lies with Min Aung Hlaing rather than the electorate whose votes seem less about democratic self-determination and more about providing a military dictatorship with a veneer of respectability for an international audience that wants to see progress.
As Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, tweeted:
If 25% of seats in UK Parliament were reserved for British Army soldiers, would anyone be talking about UK elections being free and fair?
— Mark Farmaner (@MarkFarmaner) July 8, 2015
Though Article 436 is probably the most egregious way in which the elections are rendered unfair and far from free, there are also other ways in which the authorities disenfranchise voters.
Three of the most important ministerial posts are reserved for serving army officers who are selected by Min Aung Hlaing and do not even need to be amongst the army’s group of MPs.
The ministries run by the army officers are: the Defence Ministry, which is in charge of the army, meaning that oversight of the army is the responsibility of an army officer; the Interior or Home Ministry which controls the police and civil service and appoints all administrators from village to state level; and the Border Affairs Ministry which controls border forces.
Many people will also never get an opportunity to cast their ballot.
For instance, it is likely that people in conflict areas will not get to vote because the government is likely to suspend the election in such areas. For instance in the 2010 election there was no voting in Wa areas, Mongla, and areas in Kachin and Karen State.
This time round we already know that there will be no voting in the Wa area or the Mongla area in Shan State because the ethnic armed groups controlling those areas, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) respectively, have already said that there will be no voting in the areas under their control.
The government is also likely to cancel voting in the Kokang area of Northern Shan State where there is ongoing fighting and in areas of Kachin State which are under the control of the Kachin National Organisation (KNO), or where fighting is still ongoing. Voting is also likely to be cancelled in other ethnic areas where ethnic forces are still clashing with government forces.
Another problem that mainly affects ethnic areas is that hundreds of thousands of people, including the Rohingya in Rakhine State, do not hold ID cards which means they will be unable to vote. This problem is more common in rural areas because children are often born at home and their parents do not bother to register the births, let alone get their children ID cards because the process is too time-consuming and complicated.
None of Burma’s (also known as Myanmar) internally displaced persons (IDPs), estimated at between 580,000 and 640,000 people with up to 400,000 of those being in Karen State and Karenni State in the southeast of the country, will be allowed to vote either. As most of the people in IDP camps are ethnic people it is the vote in ethnic areas that will again be most affected by the disenfranchisement of IDPs.
Internal migrants, who have moved to Rangoon and other areas, often to find work, also risk being disenfranchised because people can only vote where they are registered and most of these people will still be registered in the areas they came from, rather than where they now live. In reality most of these people will not vote because they will not be able to get back to where they are registered. It also means that many people who live in Rangoon and other big cities will have no opportunity to elect representatives for where they now live.
Another problem is inaccurate voter lists. These are the lists of people eligible to vote and they should have been posted in areas where everyone can inspect them so that they can inform the authorities of any errors or omissions on the lists and have them appropriately amended.
There have already been complaints about the voter lists. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party scrutinized the lists in 10 townships in Rangoon and found that 55 percent of the data on the voting lists was incorrect. This means that around half of voters may be disenfranchised, though some of the errors are where people who should not be on the lists, for instance dead people, have been included.
People have also complained that in some places the lists have not been properly displayed so it is hard for all the inhabitants to check them and some reports have said that on some lists the type is so small older people are unable to read it. As errors have been found throughout the voter lists inspected so far it is imperative that they are properly displayed so that they can be properly scrutinized.
That Burma is going to the polls on November 8 is undeniably a step in the right direction, but as can be seen we must not indulge the pretence that these elections will in any way be free or fair.