Democratic Party for a New Society candidate Ei Tinzar Maung campaigns on the streets of Yangon on November 2. On November 6 all campaigning wrapped up, as parties prepared to observe a "silent day" immediately before the November 8 election. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

An untidy, disrupted campaign ends amid heightened tension

A campaign marked by disappointment in the Union Election Commission and disruption from COVID-19 ends with sharply heightened tensions between the government and the Tatmadaw – and an unexpected prediction.

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

As election day nears after a campaign hobbled by COVID-19 restrictions, tensions between the government and military have overshadowed last-minute election pitches from the major parties and advance voting for the elderly.

Parties were yesterday taking down signboards and other materials ahead of a midnight deadline to allow for a “silent day” on November 7, ahead of the opening of polling booths at 6am the following day.

Meanwhile, millions of elderly voters around the country cast advance votes by a November 5 deadline, under a special arrangement introduced to reduce the risk of vulnerable groups being exposed to COVID-19.

But it was the sharp escalation in tensions between the government and the Tatmadaw over the Union Election Commission’s handling of the election that dominated headlines in the final days of the campaign, and threatened to overshadow the outcome of election day.

Power struggle

Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing kicked off the drama on November 2 when his office issued a statement criticising the UEC for “weakness and deficiencies” in its handling of the vote “which were never seen in the previous elections”. The statement said the National League for Democracy government had to take responsibility for the UEC’s actions, because it appointed the commission’s 15 members. Min Aung Hlaing said the military has spoken out because of its responsibility to safeguard the 2008 Constitution.

The senior general then followed this up with a controversial interview with Popular News Journal, a media organisation owned by the daughter of former lieutenant-general Win Myint, during which he gave a vague response as to whether he would recognise the outcome. “In 2015, I was asked in an interview. I said if the commission announced that the election was free and fair, we would just accept the result. But now, we are in a situation where we have to be cautious. I don’t want these things to happen. Therefore, we are just warning them to be careful of the way they manage the election,” he said.

NLD chair Aung San Suu Kyi and the government she leads issued separate responses to the Tatmadaw statements. In a message on her “Chair NLD” Facebook page, Aung San Suu Kyi warned the party’s supporters not to fall into a trap.

“There are many things happening that could make us angry. [They] are deliberately inciting the people to react. Do not fall into this trap,” Aung San Suu Kyi wrote, without saying who she was accusing of incitement. She added that the people were aware of attempts to undermine the success of the election by those who do not want it take place.

In another response, President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay told a specially arranged news conference on November 5 that they were deliberately timed interventions aimed at disrupting the election. Zaw Htay said the latest Tatmadaw statement and Min Aung Hlaing’s comments were not in line with the 2008 Constitution and other laws, and would only cause anxiety and instability that could undermine the holding of a free and fair vote.

Political party leaders and members of the public have expressed concern that the behaviour of the military could lead to unforeseen circumstances, with some worried about the possibility of a military coup. Political analysts say, based on their experience, nothing is impossible in Myanmar politics.

“The UEC is not the independent, non-partisan institution it is supposed to be,” said U Khin Zaw Win, director of the Yangon-based Tampadipa Institute, a think tank.

Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing salutes during the 73rd anniversary of the Martyrs’ Day ceremony in Yangon on July 19. (AFP)

Khin Zaw Win said the NLD needed to “exercise more restraint in its hell-bent desire to win the election with a landslide”. When the UEC cancelled elections in parts of five ethnic states on October 16, “everyone knew it was doing the bidding of the incumbent NLD”, he said. “The military’s statement is open-ended and calibrated. It takes in a very broad range of responses to the election outcomes, and serves as a warning to the NLD’s excesses.”

Political analysts say the spat between the Tatmadaw and the government had created concern about the post-election period, especially if the UEC’s shortcomings before the ballot lead to controversy over the election results. They warn that if the UEC fails to impartially resolve any disputed election results, it could exacerbate tensions further.

After the 2015 election there were 45 complaints against victorious candidates heard by UEC tribunals, one of which was withdrawn. Although the commission was appointed by the USDP government, the NLD won 36 of the cases.

“If the commission is not transparent in its handling of disputed election results and its rulings are not impartial, it will create unnecessary problems,” said veteran political analyst U Maung Maung Soe.

One of the biggest criticisms of the UEC has been its refusal to postpone the election because of the COVID-19 epidemic. But the UEC has come under fire from political parties and candidates for a litany of reasons, including that it is biased in favour of the NLD government.

There has been criticism over flawed voters’ lists, the censorship of party speeches on state-run media, the absence of transparent dialogue with political parties, and limitations imposed on election monitoring groups.

The biggest criticism of the UEC though has been its role in disenfranchising about 1.5 million of the country’s 38 million voters through the cancellation of voting in areas deemed to be unstable or difficulty to access. The cancellations have been particularly controversial in Rakhine State, where voting was cancelled in nine entire townships expected to elect members of Rakhine parties – a decision they say benefits the NLD.

A COVID election

A total of 5,643 candidates from 91 parties are competing for 1,119 seats in an election in which campaigning has been drastically curtailed by Ministry of Health and Sports restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.  

The restrictions affected nearly every aspect of campaigning, from the big rallies that are usually a colourful feature of any political race, to canvassing in communities. During the official campaigning period from September 8 to November 6, the restrictions limited public gatherings to no more than 50 people and banned canvassing in townships under stay-at-home orders, which affected much of Yangon Region and Rakhine State. The restrictions forced parties and candidates to rely heavily on social media to woo voters, but created communication problems for candidates in some remote areas.

The impact of the restrictions was highlighted in a report released on November 1 by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, the biggest domestic election monitoring group, which revealed that compared with the 2015 election, election sub-commissions have received fewer campaign activity applications. They included applications to hold rallies, which slumped to about 25 percent of all activities.

The PACE report said the most activity applications were submitted in Shan State, followed by Kachin State. Unsurprisingly, the least number of applications were in Rakhine State, which is under stay-at-home orders that prohibit campaigning. PACE said the parties most active in applying to hold campaign activities were the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, the NLD, and U Shwe Mann’s Union Betterment Party. The findings were based on a survey conducted from September 28 to October 11, when PACE observed 719 rallies in 172 townships. The findings were also based on information provided by the UEC.

The report said candidates were mainly using convoys that played amplified speeches, the distribution of pamphlets and other materials and posters to get their message across. “Social media constituted only about 9 percent of the overall methods used by candidates,” added the report, which said the restrictions had also affected the ability of civil society groups to conduct voter education activities.

PACE said the most common incidents reported by candidates were “interference” and the destruction of campaign materials, such as the vandalisation of billboards. There were some reports of violence, including the abduction of three NLD candidates in southern Rakhine by the Arakan Army.

PACE said the most common complaints lodged with election sub-commissions between September 1 and 28 concerned events that did not comply with COVID-19 guidelines, followed by vandalised billboards, minor disturbances, verbal attacks on candidates, and comments aimed at inciting religious or ethnic hatred. Sub-commissions also reported 10 complaints involving violence: four in Ayeyarwady Region, two each in Magway Region and Shan State and one each in Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw.

There has been more election-related violence than in 2015, when there were mostly only minor disputes between parties.

Union Solidarity and Development party supporters rally in Yangon’s Dawpone Township on November 5. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

This year’s campaign has been marked by violent clashes between rowdy convoys of NLD and USDP supporters that sometimes involve hundreds of vehicles. In one such incident, a man wearing an NLD T-shirt was beaten to death when he intervened to try to stop USDP supporters assaulting NLD youth supporters in Sagaing Region’s Kantbalu Township on October 23. There have also been ugly scenes in which houses were trashed and cars and motorbikes destroyed.

The UEC has warned against discussing race and religion in campaign speeches and has also issued reminders that it will not hesitate to take legal action against anyone disrupting the campaign or voting under section 58(d) of the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw election laws. Section 58(d) says any attempt to disturb voting or an election can result in a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment and a fine of K100,000.

On October 28, the UEC reminded candidates and parties to cease all campaign activities and take down all billboards and posters by midnight on November 6, ahead of the “quiet” period before the vote. Candidates were told they would be responsible for the cost of taking down election-related materials if it is not removed by the deadline.

As the campaign was nearing its end, there was an increased focus on the UEC’s decision to allow voters aged 60 and over in some constituencies to cast advance votes, as part of a strategy to minimise the risk of crowding in polling stations on election day. The UEC had announced on October 10 that elderly voters, who are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, could arrange to cast advance votes between October 29 and November 5.

However, advance voting has generated criticism over faults in the electoral system, such as ballot papers being sent to the wrong townships, voting more than once, opened ballot papers, and ballot paper envelopes containing ballots for the 2015 election.

Kayah State Democratic Party candidate Maw Tal Khe, who is seeking election to the Amyotha Hluttaw constituency of Kayah-6, which includes Demoso Township, blamed problems with advance voting on election sub-commissions. He said ballot papers for Kayah-7 were mistakenly sent to his constituency by the election sub-commission and 66 votes were declared invalid as a result. However, after negotiations between the election sub-commission in the Okay village tract in Demoso Township and the Okay village tract administrator, the voters were permitted to cast their ballots again in line with their right as citizens to participate in elections.

Despite the much publicised problems with advance voting, large numbers of enthusiastic elderly voters have seized the opportunity to vote early. In many cases they were able to vote at mobile polling stations close to their homes and with the help of family members and relatives.

Party leaders have said the large number of advance votes had left them less worried about turnout on election day.

“Despite concern over the surge in COVID-19 infections, we believe the people will come out on election day and participate in the democratic process,” said NLD spokesperson Monywa Aung Shin.

Turnout, which was 69pc in 2015, is forecast to be lower this year, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A survey by PACE in August found that even though most citizens were interested in voting, only 45pc nationally – and 35pc in the states – indicated that they will “definitely” vote.

The result

With the campaign complete, all eyes are turning to the potential outcome.

Although the NLD is widely expected to secure enough seats to select the president and form government, and is sure to achieve a landslide in the Bamar-majority regions, it can expect to face tougher competition from ethnic-based parties in the states than in 2015.

Due to voting being cancelled in 15 Pyithu Hluttaw constituencies and seven seats in the Amyotha Hluttaw, the resulting Pyidaungsu Hluttaw will have 476 elected representatives, out of a possible total of 498, and “not more than” 166 appointed military MPs.

With these numbers, the NLD needs at least 322 votes to guarantee its choice of president, although it is likely that a number just shy of that would suffice, given the difficulty that lawmakers from other parties and the military would face in forming a coalition to outvote the party.

In 2015, the NLD won 380 of the 491 seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw for which elections were held.

“The NLD will need to win more than 320 seats, even if it loses some seats in the states and the regions” to secure the vote for the president and form government, said Maung Maung Soe.

Kachin National Congress party supporters campaign in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, on August 25. (J.M. Elizabeth)

He predicted that the NLD would win comfortably in Kayin State, and some seats in Chin, Kachin and Mon states, but would lose seats to ethnic parties in Kayah, Rakhine and Shan states.

Asked about the possibility of a coalition government, Maung Maung Soe said: “We have a coalition government already; under the 2008 Constitution any party that wins a majority has to deal with the military, not other parties.”

The Bayda Institute, a think tank established in 2010 on the instructions of Aung San Suu Kyi, has predicted in a research paper about the November 8 election that the worst-case scenario for the NLD is 377 seats, or 55 more than the 322 needed to form government.

U Myo Yan Naung Thein, the institute’s executive director, wrote on his Facebook page on November 2 that the best-case scenario for the NLD was to win about 400 seats.

Even if the NLD is returned to power, political analyst Yan Myo Thein says it will need to form a “unity government” by inviting MPs from ethnic-based parties to serve in the Union and state and regional administrations.

If it does this, the post-election landscape could be more conducive to achieving national reconciliation and building trust across party lines, he said.

Interestingly, in his November 5 news conference, government spokesperson Zaw Htay predicted that a “national unity government” would be formed after the election. He did not elaborate.

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