How Will the 2020 Election Shape Myanmar’s Democracy?
Friday, 08 November 2019
From The Irrawaddy
12 October 2019
Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. It is supposed to be one year until the next general election. The 2015 poll was the first general election in over 50 years that was free and fair and whose results were recognized.
We will discuss to what extent the next election, due in 2020, will meet democratic norms; if it will deliver accurate results; and to what extent it will impact upon shaping free and fair elections, the essence of democracy, in the future. Executive director Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), and vice chair of the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) Ma Noe Noe Htet San join me. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
Looking at the history of Myanmar since 1962, the 2015 election was relatively free and fair, and its results were recognized. Though the 1990 election was free and fair, the military regime did not recognize the results. To what extent will the 2020 election be free and fair, and what will be the difficulties?
Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint: It is widely agreed that the 2015 election was aimed at power transfer. It can be said that it was the ultimate aim of the 2015 election. It is time to aim beyond that in the 2020 election.
It is important to make elections become a normal part of the political transition. So it is important to make sure the 2020 election is not postponed because postponing it will impede the political transition.
KZM: Do you see any possibility of that?
SYKSM: Lately, we have heard rumors that the election will be brought forward or postponed. This is an important challenge to political transition. Once such rumors spread, the Union Election Commission (UEC) should take steps to dispel suspicions by saying it plans to hold the election in a specific month. Only then will the suspicions be dispelled.
If the 2015 election was about power transfer, the biggest challenge for the 2020 election is about the degree of democracy. Because the election law was taken from the 2008 Constitution, it was specifically designed [by the military regime] for certain purposes.
Those laws no longer suit the situation in 2020. So the question is how to make it more democratic.
The main challenge concerns the extent to which it can create a level playing field for all the contesting political parties and candidates.
KZM: Can you explain in detail about that law? What barriers and challenges does it present?
SYKSM: The question is how much the UEC, the institution responsible for managing the election, is free and independent. It is the most obvious question. Under the current legal framework, the commission is accountable only to the ruling party. This poses a fundamental question about the credibility of the electoral process.

KZM: [Former President] U Thein Sein’s administration formed the UEC. Is that the case under the current government?
SYKSM: Yes, it is the same.
KZM: So you mean, the UEC needs to be independent?
SYKSM: It appears that it all depends on the behavior of individual members of the UEC. The legal framework allows them to take sides. So, I would say fundamental change should start with amending this legal framework.
KZM: Ma Noe Noe Htet San, the DPNS was established after 1988 but it only contested a few elections. But we heard that the party is taking active steps to contest the 2020 election. What challenges, problems or constraints do you face, including from the UEC?
Noe Noe Htet San: Our understanding is that the party system must be strong to strengthen democracy. To strengthen the party system, laws that regulate parties are necessary. We have seen setbacks regarding the UEC’s regulation of parties. For example, we have to submit applications to the UEC if we want to do something.
As Ko Sai said, the UEC needs to create a level playing field for political parties. It is the UEC’s responsibility to handle problems between elections. Political parties are accountable only to the constituents they represent and have no responsibility to inform any institution [of their activities]. But, what is happening is the UEC restricts the freedom of political parties. For example, it is a widely held view that federalism is important for the country.
So when we planned to provide federalism training together with civil society organizations and other parties, the UEC imposed restrictions.
And the UEC also restricted the township organizing committees [of our party] which are important to strengthen the party. I don’t think it should be one of the duties of the UEC. For parties to thrive and develop, laws and mechanisms should encourage them and not restrict them. There are a lot of questions about the intention of the previous [military] government to create the 2008 Constitution.
[The current government] should have done what it could since the 2015 election. Even if it was difficult for it [to make changes], as it is a political party and used to be the opposition, it understands well the difficulties facing parties. So parties have this question, why [has the National League for Democracy] not made changes while it knows exactly which laws can be reformed?

KZM: Ko Sai, what laws should be amended?
SYKSM: There is a need to review all the five election laws. Some need to be amended along with constitutional reform, and some need to be changed in the long run. For example, the electoral system and constituency sizes need to be changed.
They need to be adjusted in the long run. But for the 2020 election, if we want to make it more democratic and fair, and create equal opportunities for all the contestants, first the commission needs to show it has transparency and is not partisan. To do so, it needs to talk to the parties and the media and release the election schedule.
Then this will quash rumors about the election date and dispel public suspicion. It needs to allow civil society organizations to participate in the electoral process and conduct surveys freely.
And it should release campaign regulations. For example, it needs to outline how the president and ministers can fund their campaigns and if they can use state funds. It needs to handle the voter lists and advance voting. We focus more on the standards of the electoral process rather than which party is in power. What we measure in an election is competitiveness, so all the political parties can contest the election equally. This is the most important part of the election.
KZM: Many requirements are to be fulfilled for that to happen. The current UEC is remote from the media and civil society organizations. It barely grants interviews to the media. Critics say it is even less decisive than its predecessor. So are there any good examples in other countries?
SYKSM: In Indonesia, there is a law that allows civil society organizations and international agencies to monitor the poll. We had no such law. So we copied nearly the whole text and [the provision in Myanmar’s electoral law about election monitoring] is a translation of the Indonesian law.
Indonesia is also a very good example of electoral information. It provides open data.
You can find data about candidates, and citizens can check voter lists easily. All the information is placed online. And voting results at individual polling stations are also posted online. There are fewer opportunities for rigging an election, and, therefore, the more contestants believe in the election, the more meaningful the result will become.
KZM: We have been talking about the importance of a free and fair