The upcoming April by-elections will fall substantially short of global standards and cannot be considered as ‘free’ or ‘fair’, according to an assessment by a local campaign group.
“Widespread irregularities, threats, harassment, vote buying, and censorship mar the electoral process in the lead-up to voting day,” warned the Alternative Asean Network on Burma (ALTSEAN) in a briefing paper published today.
These concerns are compounded by undemocratic governance structures, including the flawed 2010 election laws and a heavily partial Union Election Commission (UEC) handpicked by the military-backed regime.
For example, it costs one million kyat (US$1,220) to complain against election results and an unsuccessful result could lead to jail penalties. The laws also set a non-refundable 500,000 kyat (US$610) registration fee for political candidates, which can severely restrict the ability of independent or minority candidates to participate.
The UEC has restricted the campaign activities of the National League of Democracy (NLD) and failed to investigate allegations of abuse. The first speech by Aung San Suu Kyi broadcast on Burmese state television was partly censored for breaching regulations against criticising the military.
The NLD has also complained of dead persons appearing on voter lists, while valid voters have been left off.
The recent disenfranchisement of 200,000 Kachin citizens, after polling stations in the state were closed, is an additional cause for concern says the campaigners. The belated admission of election observers has equally been dismissed as “too little, too late.”
Yesterday, President Thein Sein urged the country to respect “the decision of the people”, recognising that there had been “unnecessary errors” on ballot lists.
“Winners and losers will emerge in the by-elections [as usual]. We all need to work together to ensure that the outcome is accepted by all the people,” he is reported as saying in The New Light of Myanmar.
With 48 out of 659 seats in the National Parliament are up for grabs, opposition parties will be unable to challenge the military’s dominance, even if they win all available seats.
Critics have slammed the by-elections as a political smokescreen intended to woo western countries into easing further sanctions. But analysts insist elections are still an important test for the reclusive state.
“While the by-elections have limited political significance, they are important because they are being championed as an indicator of progress by the international community after the sham 2010 polls,” said ALTSEAN.
“The international community must wait [to lift sanctions] till the 2015 elections when all the seats are open. If the NLD can freely contest every seat, then we will know it is time to lift sanctions,” said Sandar Min, NLD candidate for the People’s Assembly in Naypyidaw’s Zabuthiri Township.