A woman casts her vote in a by-election in a polling station in eastern Yangon's Dagon Seikkan Township on April 1, 2017. (AFP)
A woman casts her vote in a by-election in a polling station in eastern Yangon's Dagon Seikkan Township on April 1, 2017. (AFP)

USDP risks disorderly election by snubbing code of conduct

Ethical campaigning for this year’s election is no longer a certainty after the Union Solidarity and Development Party and its allies refused to sign a code of conduct.


Since the Union Election Commission announced in late June that the general election would take place on November 8, announcements related to the ballot have been released almost every day.

The first iteration of the UEC was appointed in March 2010 ahead of the flawed election in November that year won by the Union Solidarity and Development Party in a contest boycotted by the National League for Democracy. However, international and domestic observers declared the 2015 election won by the NLD as being free and fair, despite it being held in an uncertain climate marred by religious and ethnic conflict.

In the run up to the 2015 election, the NLD accused the UEC of bias towards the military-aligned USDP government, which had appointed the commissioners. As parties prepare to campaign, the roles are reversed and the USDP is making the same charges against the current NLD-appointed UEC.

An important development ahead of the vote in 2015 was the signing by all parties of a code of conduct that contributed towards a fairly harmonious campaign period. The code is needed to avoid disputes that are not covered by law and might otherwise lead to upheavals.

The code of conduct for this year’s election is based on the document adopted in 2015 but is more comprehensive. It was drafted by 21 representatives from 19 parties, including the NLD and USDP. The Swiss embassy sponsored the process, which involved eight months of negotiations between the parties, with the UEC stepping in sometimes to review legal points.

The code is not legally binding but represents a consensus on ethical campaigning. Its provisions against the defamation of candidates are aimed at preventing baseless accusations that could be unjustifiably damaging to their electoral chances.

Incendiary racial and religious rhetoric is banned, as are threats, intimidation and the exploitation of religion for political gain. Unlike in 2015, this year’s code devotes considerable attention to the use of social media.

This move has been complemented by Facebook’s decision to form a special team to monitor its platform for hate speech and misinformation, including from fake accounts, during the campaign. Facebook has also said it would disclose information about ads on its platform paid for by parties and candidates.

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The code of conduct recognises the importance of media freedom, saying it should not be obstructed, and prohibits the threatening and bribing of reporters.

The code also attempts to level the playing field, including by banning the incumbent party from chartering helicopters to campaign in remote constituencies and requiring all candidates and parties to use commercial flights if they wish to travel by air.

If parties adhere to the code, it will contribute towards a just and stable vote. It was therefore a surprise that when the code’s Swiss sponsors and other diplomats gathered for the signing ceremony at Yangon’s Meliá Hotel on June 26, the USDP and 18 other parties refused to sign. Another 11 parties allied with the USDP boycotted the ceremony.

Despite agreeing to the contents of the code during negotiations, the parties said they would not sign the document because it did not include a ban on any campaigning that uses images of independence hero General Aung San, the father of NLD leader and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The UEC responded that all parties were entitled to use the image, but perhaps the real reason why so many parties refused to sign the code is that they do not want to adhere to its rules.

Recent weeks have seen a spike in fake news and online smears targeting the NLD, with suspicion hovering over the USDP, though there is no proof of its involvement.

On the same day as the signing ceremony, government spokesperson U Zaw Htay was telling reporters in Nay Pyi Taw that the little-known Forward Media Group was spreading fake news on Facebook that he was to be removed from his position in the State Counsellor’s Office.

He said some journalists were accomplices in disinformation campaigns against the NLD government and warned that any organisation found spreading fake news would face legal action.

The refusal of the USDP and its allies to commit to the code makes it unclear if they will embrace its purpose and follow its rules, and raises the possibility of political instability in the run-up to the election.

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