PEOPLE all over Burma have cast their votes in what have been billed as the fairest elections in decades.
The previous elections, in 2010, were boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD), probably the single most popular political party in the country.
The previous elections in 1990 were resoundingly won by the NLD, but the military who ruled the country annulled the elections, stayed in power and imprisoned many of the NLD’s winning candidates.
This time round the NLD are competing and are expected to take many seats, though they still face an uphill struggle to win the election as 25 per cent of seats are reserved for the military who will support the current incumbent party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Unlike in more mature democracies where there are plenty of pundits and pollsters willing to tell you how they think the election will turn out, in Burma no one seems to have any idea who will win the election. Though the NLD seem very strong because there are so many other parties, especially in ethnic areas, the NLD’s share of the vote might be diluted enough to allow the USDP to win in those areas.
“The people in the queue seemed to represent a complete cross section of society from young to old and many people appeared to have come in family groups.”
This election has been billed as a free and fair election and judging by what Asian Correspondent saw at a polling station in the Shan State capital of Taunggyi, the voting process was carried out in an organised and fair way.
On Sunday, voting ran from 6am to 4pm and at the polling station in Taunggyi, normally a school. The queue stretched outside the gates and people had to patiently wait for an hour to vote.
The people in the queue seemed to represent a complete cross section of society from young to old and many people appeared to have come in family groups.
Outside the polling station was a Special Policeman, one of thousands specially recruited by the government for the period of the election to protect polling stations. In Taunggyi, security inside the polling station was provided by local firemen.
Also keeping an eye on proceedings to ensure that voting procedures were correctly followed were seven officials from the Union Election Commission (UEC), the body charged by the government with organising the election in a free and fair way.
All the UEC officials were from the quarter where the polling station was located and were specially employed for the day. As well as ensuring everything went smoothly and showing voters what to do they also had to collate all the used voter registration cards and ensure that the ballot boxes were ready to be taken to the counting centre at specific times of the day. They even went as far as putting stools out for the people waiting in line.
The actual procedure of voting seemed to be very well organised.
First of all the voters went into one room where they had their voter registration and ID cards checked before going into a second room where they cast their vote in voting booths. As they came out of the room everyone had to give in their voter registration forms and dip their left little finger into a pot of indelible purple ink to ensure they did not vote again. Apparently the ink washes off in about three days.
Procedurally it looked scrupulously fair at the polling station and the turnout looked to be high. One of the UEC officials said he thought that about 1,500 out of 1,732 voters registered in the quarter would choose to cast their vote.
To further ensure that the election is fair there have been international observers from several organisations, including the EU and the Carter Foundation watching over the election process. Both those organisations expect to issue preliminary reports two days after the election.
Despite the apparent fairness on election day and the international oversight there is still potential for abuse of the electoral procedure.
There have been complaints that many people who were entitled to vote did not get the opportunity because they were excluded from the voter lists.
A lot of advanced votes were cast and there are worries that there will have been ample opportunities to tamper with the ballot papers before they get counted.
Most military service personnel were also forced to vote in advance on their bases. There are worries that they were pressured to vote for the USDP and were not allowed to cast their votes in privacy.
“The worry is that after the international observers have left the UEC will find reasons to invalidate results.”
The new parliament will not convene until March or April next year and there are worries that in the intervening period more USDP representatives will find their way into parliament at the expense of the other parties’ candidates.
Many believe that the UEC members, who were chosen by the USDP government, are not impartial. Their chairman Tin Aye was a former USDP member and a general who was in class 9 at the military academy along with President Thein Sein.
The worry is that after the international observers have left the UEC will find reasons to invalidate results and will scrutinise winning candidates to find reasons to declare them ineligible to serve in parliament.
So, though superficially these elections appear to have been procedurally fair, particularly for a country that has just emerged from nearly 50 years of military dictatorship, the international community should still keep an eye on Burma to ensure that the people who end up serving them in parliament are those that they voted for.
Also it must not be forgotten that though these elections may have been carried out in a fair way they can never be declared as truly fair because 25 per cent of the seats in parliament are automatically taken by the military, which is far from being democratic and fair.