As Burma gears up for weekend elections, the head of the national election commission vowed Wednesday to conduct the polls in a transparent manner according to the law, but analysts are unclear as to how far the panel will go to ensure a free and fair election.
“What I can do for my part is ensure the election law is strictly followed,” Tin Aye, head of the Union Election Commission, told reporters Wednesday in the country’s capital Naypyidaw.
“After the election, if [the parties] have filed complaints, we can have a tribunal to take action on irregularities,” he said.
The April 1 vote, in which pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is running for a seat in parliament for the first time since her party was blocked from taking power after winning 1990 elections, is being watched closely by foreign governments who are considering pulling back long-running sanctions.
The by-elections for 45 seats are considered a key test of the government’s commitment to recent reforms begun last year after a nominally civilian government took power following November 2010 elections that were dismissed as a sham.
Aung San Suu Kyi is widely expected to win a seat in parliament in the vote, which could bring legitimacy to President Thein Sein’s military-backed government as it allows the Nobel laureate to participate in active politics after living under house arrest for over a decade.
But Kelley Currie, a senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute think tank in Washington, said the elections should not be judged by whether or not Aung San Suu Kyi is able to win, but how fairly they are carried out.
“They are going to let her win her constituency. It’s what happens down the ballot with other constituencies that needs to be focused on,” she told RFA.
She said the election commission has not done all it could to address concerns about the fairness of the vote.
“They have said that they are going to ensure a free and fair election, but they haven’t acted to do anything about a lot of these problems.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the main opposition party which is challenging the ruling military-backed party in 44 of the 45 parliamentary seats up for grabs, has complained of unfair obstacles in its campaign, including difficulty securing venues and a slingshot attack on one of their candidates earlier this month.
Regarding the attack, Tin Aye said, “The election commission’s role is to supervise the election, not to handle these issues. The parties concerned should report such incidents to the police.”
“This kind of thing happens not only to the NLD, it happens to all parties,” he said.
The NLD has also complained of procedural irregularities, including inaccurate voter lists containing names of dead people.
“It’s unclear what the election commission has done … to ensure that what they have right now is an accurate complete voter roll for the 48 constituencies,” she said.
“In a by-election, when you’re only talking about 48 constituencies, it should not be difficult to deal with challenges to a voter list.”
But the biggest irregularity in the run-up to the vote has been the use of state resources to support campaigns for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military-backed party that will still dominate the remaining seats in parliament even if the NLD wins all those it is contesting, Currie said.
“The biggest problem is the use of state resources by the ruling party and the government to influence the election,” such as by intimidating voters, Currie said.
Between lack of attention to the complaints raised and state attention focused on the USDP, there has been “a very questionable pre-election climate where the ruling party is using every possible thing that it has to its advantage,” she said.
In a bid to gain international legitimacy, Burma will be welcoming international observers to the vote for the first time since rejecting them in the 2010 election and the 1990 election in which the NLD won by a landslide but was prevented from taking office.
There will be 159 international observers monitoring the vote, with Japan and Canada the latest countries added to the list Wednesday.
The invitation for international observers was announced last week, and the observers were asked to arrive four days before the vote, sparking concern that observers will not have enough time or preparation to assess the credibility of the election.
After the announcement, one E.U. official said that usually six months are needed to prepare an observation mission.
“The situation for journalists and international observers has been very last-minute and limited,” Currie said.
“When the by-elections were announced … one of the things the commission should have done was make sure there were guidelines in place for domestic and international observers, and but it’s not clear that they have a set procedure that’s transparent, with due process, [and] right of appeal to another authority."
"It’s very unclear that those things are happening,” she said.
The national election commission has also promised that journalists will be allowed to cover the vote freely, issuing regulations to that effect on Wednesday.
Tin Aye said, “Reporters can cover the event freely, as we have said, but they have to follow the rules and regulations laid out by the commission.”
The regulations stipulate that reporters may not disturb voters within 500 yards (460 meters) of the polling booths and that only authorized personnel, which does not include journalists, will be allowed inside the booths, in order to ensure voter privacy.
Burma’s censorship chief, Tint Swe, also gave assurances that media will be able to cover the event freely.
“Regarding by-elections, I can at least say that for the print media there will be no restrictions at all. Nor are there orders or restrictions issued,” he told RFA’s Burmese service.
He said 400 domestic and 100 foreign journalists had been credentialed to cover the polls.
“All journalists can freely go and watch at all 45 constituencies, besides the three constituencies in which the vote is cancelled.”
Polling has been postponed in three constituencies in Kachin state in the north of Burma, where fighting with the ethnic Kachin Independence Army has escalated since the beginning of the year.
Meanwhile, the election commission is gearing up to process and count the votes on Sunday.
Tin Aye vowed the election commission would ensure an accurate count, but emphasized that the logistics could be time-consuming.
“We don’t need to issue the results fast; the key is to get them right,” he said.
The commission has promised to have the results within one week.
Tin Aye said that counting the votes would be a time-consuming process because each voter will be submitting separate ballots for representatives in the upper house, lower house, and regional assemblies.
Voters will have to line up separately for each vote.
“It’s like holding the election three times,” he said. “A polling booth handling 3,000 voters will have to deal with 9,000 votes.”
“When the accounting process comes, it will be the same. We will have to count the votes for three separate cases,” he said.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe and Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Win Naing. Written in English with additional reporting by Rachel Vandenbrink.