Myanmar polls set to be most transparent ever

Pundits expect the National League for Democracy, led by the charismatic Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, to come out as the single largest party.
Pundits expect the National League for Democracy, led by the charismatic Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, to come out as the single largest party.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

200 foreign observers, along with 1,000 domestic ones, will be at Sunday's elections

Myanmar's general election on Sunday - its first genuine multi-party elections since 1990 - is shaping up to be unprecedented in terms of transparency.

For the first time, around 200 foreign observers from Europe, Asia, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan will join over 1,000 domestic observers, in the elections which are seen as the first serious test for the country's tentative transition to democracy after decades of stifling military rule.

Many of the foreign observers are experienced election watchers from the European Union, the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) and the US-based Carter Centre, among others.

ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN

We are in uncharted waters. There is a lot of time for negotiation and compromise, but also a lot of time for acrimonious politics to emerge.

HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR THANT MYINT-U, on the post-election period

For the Carter Centre, this will be its 101st election as observers. Its team of 60 has been promised access to every polling station and will also observe the counting process.

The level of access was "very encouraging", foreign journalists were told at a briefing. Mr Jonathan Stonestreet, associate director of the centre's Democracy Programme and leader of its Myanmar project, said: "If the rules are implemented, it will be a transparent process with a lot of eyes on it."

In the fray are around 6,000 candidates from 91 political parties. At stake are 664 seats in the houses of Parliament, as well as hundreds of seats in state assemblies.

Questions remain over voting lists with missing names, and the disenfranchisement of many thousands of, in effect, stateless Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state.

Polls have also been cancelled in parts of Shan state where fighting has broken out in recent weeks between the Myanmar army and the Shan State Army (North), one of the armed groups that did not sign up to a ceasefire with the government last month.

There is also a burden of history. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the general election in 1990 by a landslide - but the army reneged on accepting the result, instead detaining its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and extending iron-fisted military rule for more than two decades until the calibrated handover in 2011 to a quasi-civilian government.

The polls will also take place against a backdrop of rising Burman-Buddhist nationalism targeting the country's small Muslim minority. It is a force powerful enough for the NLD to not put up a single Muslim candidate for fear of losing Buddhist votes.

Still, up to 30 million in the country of around 50 million are eligible to vote, and Myanmar's powerful armed forces chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, while obliquely telling soldiers not to vote for the NLD, has pledged to respect the result.

The last general election in 2010 under military rule saw the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) romp home in polls widely seen as rigged in its favour, and helped by a boycott by the NLD. This time, pundits expect the NLD, led by the charismatic Ms Suu Kyi, to come out as the single largest party.

But some analysts say the NLD may not win a majority - 67 per cent. If it falls short, it will have to strike bargains with small ethnic parties to make up the numbers.

And if it does manage a majority or even a landslide victory, Ms Suu Kyi cannot be president because of a clause in the Constitution barring anyone with foreign family connections from the post. She was married to a foreigner and her two sons are foreign nationals.

The military has a reserved bloc of 25 per cent of all seats in both Parliament and the state assemblies, and can block amendments to the Constitution.

"There is a need to have the polls themselves go well; peacefully, and with a credible counting process," said historian and author Thant Myint-U in an interview.

"But we are in uncharted waters. There is a lot of time for negotiation and compromise, but also a lot of time for acrimonious politics to emerge. In the coming months, both winners and losers will have to decide whether to work together, or if it is to be a zero-sum outcome."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Myanmar polls set to be most transparent ever'. Print Edition | Subscribe