With “scrupulous regulations” to protect voters and advice from Asian countries that have held elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, Myanmar is confident it can hold nationwide polls on Nov. 8, despite a surge in cases that has prompted calls for postponing the vote, a senior election official told RFA on Thursday.
Myanmar recorded 32,351 confirmed COVID-19 cases on Thursday, including 1,026 new ones, 765 total related fatalities, and 14,706 recoveries, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. A surge in infections in the country of 54 million people since August has sparked calls to put off the vote and low turnout warnings.
Union Election Commission member and spokesman Myint Naing told RFA that while the situation is “concerning,” the UEC believes “there is no reason we cannot hold the elections on the scheduled date.”
Compared to countries that voted in 2020 that the commission has benchmarked “we have issued more scrupulous regulations for the elections,” he told RFA in an exclusive interview in Naypyidaw.
Myanmar has looked to the experience of elections held in other countries — including Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, which have successfully held elections during the pandemic — to inform its decision to proceed with balloting, Myint Naing said.
“We have seen elections held in countries where the conditions are multiple times worse than ours. … But we have evaluated the experiences of these countries,” he said. “For example, the election commission chairman of Sri Lanka said there had been no COVID-19 outbreaks due to the election there. We trust their conclusions.”
Myint Naing added that Myanmar committed to strictly following standard operating procedures for the elections based on the examples of other countries.
“We have seen many countries with conditions worse than ours holding elections,” he said. “Like I said, we have also learned from their experiences.”
“We've received comments from countries like South Korea that our preparations are better than theirs were,” he said, referring to April 15 parliamentary elections in that country. “If everyone cooperates with us, then there is no reason why we cannot hold this election successfully.”
The UEC spokesman also rejected the notion that numerous political parties had requested that voting be postponed until the coronavirus was under control.
“It is not true that many parties have requested postponing the election,” he said. “It’s only a small number of parties. Many of them are just suggesting it.”
Survey shows voter fears
In mid-September, a handful of parties, including the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), called for putting off the vote, arguing that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) would hold an advantage as social-distancing rules and facial mask requirements hamstrung campaigning.
As the number of coronavirus cases and related fatalities continue to climb, about one-half of the citizens surveyed in a recent poll indicate that they will vote, but another one-third said they will stay away from polling stations for fear of contracting the contagious respiratory illness.
The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) released a report on Oct. 5 with findings from the survey based on interviews conducted on Aug. 3-5 with nearly 2,600 people across the country to find out their intentions to vote, priority issues, level of trust in public figures and institutions, views on political parties, and expectations of candidates.
About 37.5 million people are eligible to vote in the election to elect candidates from more than 90 parties, as well as independents, to fill 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
Khin Myo Wai, a resident of North Oakkalapa township in Yangon, told RFA that she will not vote because of the possibility of catching the virus in an overcrowded polling station.
“Now the death rate is skyrocketing, and so is the infection rate,” she said.
“I fear getting infected if I go out and vote,” she added. “I heard people are getting infected in the market. The large crowds at polling stations will be breeding grounds for infections on Election Day.”
But Win Win Khaing from Yangon’s Insein township said she plans to don a face mask and go out to cast her ballot.
“I decided to go out to vote,” she said. “During the election, I will make sure I wear enough protective items. I will sanitize my entire body before I enter my home after the election, and I will change clothes immediately.”
Zwe Wunna, a campaigner who is involved in organizing a “no-vote” campaign on Facebook for those who will abstain from voting over dissatisfaction with the government and politics in the country, said more people have been joining the effort.
“Fewer people are interested in this year’s election,” he said. “People are even less motivated to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Those who have joined our Facebook group for a ‘no-vote’ campaign are people who were previously active participants in the election process,” he said.
Government-mandated stay-at-home orders will remain in effect on Election Day in many townships with high COVID-19 infection rates.
USDP spokesman Thein Tun Oo said if voter turnout is low on Election Day, then the polling results will not represent the legitimate choice of Myanmar citizens.
“If there is a low turnout, a small number of voters will decide the outcome, [and] I am concerned that we might not have a government that can genuinely serve the people and protect their interests.”
Thein Tun Oo suggested moving the election date to the last week of December because the COVID-9 pandemic continues to pose a major danger to public health.
Min Zeyar, vice chairman of the People’s Party, agreed that if voter participation is too low, the legitimacy of the election outcome will be questioned.
“We are sure that the voter turnout will be low, and many candidates will not be able to campaign effectively,” he said. “The outcome will be disappointing for many of them. I’m sure that the election results will be less representative of the people.”
‘Turnout will be high’
Min Zeyar also noted that Myanmar’s Election Law does not set a minimum voter turnout to determine the legitimacy of voting results.
“It means that the winners of these small turnouts will take all,” he added.
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said that the elections must be held nationwide despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is a mandatory political process, [and] many people are still motivated to vote despite the pandemic,” he said. “We should view the pandemic separately from the election process, [and] we should think about how to get the election process done even within the limitations caused by the pandemic.”
When asked about the PACE survey findings and questions raised about the legitimacy of an election with low voter turnout, Myint Naing said election officials have estimated that voter turnout will be high.
“I already explained how we have prepared to keep voters safe and secure during the voting process, so we’ve noted that the turnout will be high,” he said. “Therefore, questioning the legitimacy of the election results is unnecessary.”
In recent days, the UEC has said it will help voters over 60 years of age to vote from their homes in 34 densely populated townships. The commission also has issued orders for voters to comply with the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 regulations by wearing face masks and keeping six feet away from others inside and outside polling stations.
The UEC had not responded to RFA’s emailed request for details about measures to ensure the safety of the voters during the election as of Thursday night.
Mya Nandar Thin, an election consultant at the New Myanmar Foundation, said that voter turnout could be much lower than the 69 percent of voters who cast ballots in the 2015 elections when 24 million out of 34 million registered voters went to the polls.
“There is no minimum number of votes required for each candidate to win,’ she said.” Those who garner the most votes will win, but voter participation will be low. The outcome will be less representative of all voters [and] could lead to disputes and clashes among the candidates and parties.”
The NLD is seeking reelection after taking power from the pro-military USDP in the last national vote held in 2015. The stiffest competition will again be between the NLD, which is fielding 1,143 candidates, and the USDP, which has put forward 1,129 candidates.
Reported by Thet Su Aung and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.