Pressure mounts on the president and election commission as registration 'problems' threaten to rule out two-thirds of the electorate
Nay Htun Naing
Eleven Media/Asia News Network
Concern is growing that next month's general election in Myanmar will be neither transparent nor fair.
Registration problems plus credible reports that voter lists have been tampered with suggest we are in for a rerun of the deeply flawed elections in 1990 and 2010.
The anxiety among opposition politicians was highlighted recently by Han Shwe of the National Unity Party (NUP), who urged the Union Election Commission (UEC) to do its utmost to avoid the flaws of the 2010 poll by ensuring a free and fair election in line with international norms.
Meanwhile opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) vice-chairman Tin Oo claims that "a party" is seeking to win the election through invalid entries on the voters list.
"Previously, they have won elections through [flawed] 'advance voting'.
Will they do it again - will they try to win it with invalid votes? I question whether that is what they are attempting to do," said Tin Oo.
20 million voters could miss out
The growing chorus of concern has been rebutted by Tin Aye, chairman of the election commission.
However, he says his commission can only endorse the 30 per cent (9.6 million) of eligible voters who have so far come forward to update their voting records.
The remaining 20 million registered voting-age citizens might not be given the chance to vote.
The election committee chairman refuses to take responsibility for the massive shortfall, insisting it is up to voters to update their records.
"No country in the world places such responsibility on its election commission," Tin Aye told the 7 Day Journal last month.
Election commissioners have admitted the voter lists are full of mistakes, but their explanations are hard to swallow.
Firstly, they blame the voters for failing to check the voter lists, and regional election sub-commissions for faulty procedures.
The UEC has sought to remedy this by sending text-message warnings to mobile phone users to check the voter lists, but many see this as a bid to convince voters that the shortcomings are not the commission's responsibility.
The second point is that voters have checked the voter lists and had them corrected only to find that the new lists still contained significant errors.
Thirdly, Tin Aye has admitted that errors in voter lists were down to a software program.
"As we are technologically weak, we hired a company to compile voter lists. We wanted to check the lists online [but] we did not use the old software and changed to a new programme instead. Then this [the errors] happened." he said at a September 25 seminar on election conduct.
The excuses hold no water.
Tin Aye must take responsibility for correcting the voter lists and ensuring that at least 90 per cent of those eligible can vote.
Without such a guarantee there is simply no possibility of a free and fair election.
The lessons from 1990 and 2010
The 1990 election was better organised, with more than 15 million voters (72.59 per cent) out of a total electorate of 20 million turning up at polling stations.
Yet the number of invalid, lost and overlapping votes totalled a worrying 12.3 per cent. Despite this, the NLD won a landslide victory, before the result was scrapped by the junta.
The 2010 election was more obviously infected by fraud, as there were more voters than names on the voting lists.
Though the total registered electorate numbered just 27.29 million, there were over 29 million voters for the lower house election and over 28 million voters for the upper house.
The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won the lower-house election with only 43.04 per cent of the vote, but received 58.41 per cent of the advance votes.
It also won 16.26 million votes for the upper house - about 75 per cent - but added more than 2.7 million advance votes, accounting for 87.62 per cent of all the voters.
About 75 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls in 1990 and 2010, which has given rise to an expected turnout of 65-75 per cent in next month's poll, or 20.8 million-24 million of the 32 million eligible voters.
If, as Tin Aye suggests, only 9.6 million of those will actually be able vote, then the election result will simply not reflect the will of the people.
The inclusion of ineligible voters in large numbers would also invalidate the process.
It is up to the observers and officials to make sure that such plots do not unfold at polling booths.
Based on 2010 election experience and credible rumours now circulating, electoral fraud is likely to be worst in six regions: Sagaing, Ayeyawady, Mandalay, Taninthayi, Chin State and Kayah State.
There is wide agreement that corruption and cronyism among the authorities helped fuel landslide wins in 2010 for ruling party candidates in all these regions, as well as in Bago and Magway.
The election commission has placed a limit on advance votes of 5 per cent of the total vote, though most neutral observers reckon that will be exceeded.
Furthermore, if the number of votes rejected as spoiled or for other reasons exceeds 12 per cent, the result will be dubious.
The stakes have never been higher, as next month's election will decide Myanmar's balance of political power after decades of de facto military rule.
Tin Aye's conflict of interest
Worryingly, Tin Aye still thinks of himself as a government official, which creates an obvious conflict of interest with his duty to referee the election.
"I will be in national politics for as long as I stay healthy," he told 7 Day last month.
"Whatever happens, I will work till my last breath using my 52 years of [political] experience for the country."
In stark contrast, the chair of the 1990 election commission, Ba Htay, did his duty without political ambition.
The words of Tin Aye have thus discredited the election commission and with it the entire election process.
Throwing further doubt on Tin Aye's neutrality is his closeness to President Thein Sein, who nominated him as election commission chief.
"The president and I are comrades; brothers in arms. We have mutual respect," he told 7 Day, before adding had no longer had official links to the USDP.
I joined it [the USDP] in August 2010 and left in March 2011," he said.
The day after Tin Aye quit the party, Thein Sein nominated him to chair the election commission.
The president is responsible for appointing at least five members of the commission, including its head.
Tin Aye was a senior member of the military junta that ruled Myanmar up until 2011 and ranked just below its leader Than Shwe and deputy Maung Aye, on a par with Shwe Mann, Tin Aung Myint Oo and Thein Sein.
The top positions of the election commission at national and local levels are filled by retired military men.
The worst-case scenario for the election is a controversial result that sees Thein Sein return for a second term as president, an outcome that would severely damage both his image and that of the nation as a whole.
That is why every effort should be made to ensure the voter lists are correct and fraud is kept to a minimum.
To do this, election observers first need to investigate voter lists in each area. That task need not take much manpower - a team of 100,000 staff would be enough to ensure correct voter lists.
Both Tin Aye and President Thein Sein have a constitutional duty to guarantee a fair election, which means ensuring that voter lists are at least 90 per cent accurate. If they cannot do so, Tin Aye must resign from his post by law.
Thus it is down to global institutions, the media, the voters and the contesting parties to call the election commission chief and the president to account.
The voter lists must be corrected and election fraud clamped down on.
Otherwise, Myanmar faces a grim future at the hands of undemocratic forces.