A publication by Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Yangon, July 2020
The next general elections in Myanmar are scheduled for 8 November 2020. During the first half of this year, when Myanmar first started to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, neither this date nor the dimensions of the looming health crisis were clear. Against this background, the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Yangon Office decided to conduct a remote assessment to take stock of the pre-electoral situation and shed light on some open questions and ongoing developments.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposes electoral processes worldwide to new challenges. By June 2020, over 100 electoral events had been postponed globally while some countries decided to go ahead with elections despite the pandemic. In Myanmar, the outbreak of Covid-19 compounds already existing weaknesses and risks in the electoral process, but does currently not make the holding of elections impossible or even unlikely. However, few months before election day, the further spread of the virus has to be factored in as a potential risk which could affect the process in unpredictable ways.
The Myanmar general elections, which are organized under the auspices of the Union Election Commission (UEC), take place in five-year terms. The last elections were considered a referendum against military rule which led to the current government under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The upcoming polls are expected to be more competitive, and the entire electoral system will likely become more tested than before.
This assessment looks briefly into the pre-electoral situation, the legal framework for elections, the election administration, voter registration, the political party landscape, campaign and campaign finance, as well as the potential cancellation of elections, and perspectives for elections in Rakhine State. Furthermore, the paper also discusses social media and election observation before focusing on election day, taking Covid-19 into account.
By doing so, this assessment builds on the language and findings of past EU and other election observation missions as well as on 25 update online interviews conducted with a variety of stakeholders. These include representatives of the UEC, political parties, the media, civil society organisations, technical assistance providers, national and international election observers, and independent experts.
Based on these conversations and additional research, the assessment also draws nine recommendations for electoral stakeholders. Whichever solutions will be found to safeguard both the right to vote and protect public health in Myanmar, they will have to be tailored to the context while upholding international standards and principles for democratic elections.
- The UEC is recommended to issue an electoral calendar as it did for by-elections in 2017.
- The UEC could consider holding regular stakeholder meetings with political parties and civil society to enhance communication and information flows on electoral matters and instil trust in the electoral process.
- The UEC could establish a centralised voter list and facilitate voter list display periods as soon as the conditions around Covid-19 allow. In the absence of public displays, efforts to make the voter list searchable online could be enhanced and this option promoted in order to maximise the number of voters who verify their names on the list, and request changes where necessary.
- The UEC could consider facilitating elections for internally displaced persons (IDPs), taking their choice of voting for their home constituency or the constituency of temporary residence into account.
- The UEC, in collaboration with the security apparatus, should exercise transparency in the case of necessary full or partial election cancellations, and should communicate such decisions timely and clearly.
- The government should pay urgent attention to Rakhine State. The Tatmadaw should extend its temporary truce with ethnic armed organisations to the Arakan Army to avoid further escalation.
- Civic tech providers, citizen election observers and donors should collaborate and take professional expertise pertaining to elections into account. Civic and voter education should be prioritised during the remaining months before the elections.
- Myanmar law makers and the UEC should timely address election observer recommendations.
- The UEC should continue good practices of exchange with civil society and avoid unnecessary obstacles for the accreditation of citizen election observers.
Table of contents
List of Abbreviations
1. Legal Framework
2. Election Administration
2a. Institutional Organisation and Composition
2b. Voter Registration
3. Political Parties and Campaign
3a. Political Party Landscape
3b. Political Party and Candidate Regulation
3c. Campaign Regulation
3d. Campaign Finance
4. Elections and Conflict
4.a. The potential cancellation of elections
4.b. Conflict in Rakhine State
5. Social Media and Elections
6. Election Observation
7. Towards Election Day