Election officials in Myanmar have not set a date for November general elections to be held amid continuing armed conflict in parts of the multiethnic country and a coronavirus pandemic of unknown duration, they said Thursday, drawing criticism from parties who say the uncertainty hurts their chances.
The lack of a specific voting date has drawn criticism from the main opposition party that argues that the lack of a firm polling date will give de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) an unfair advantage in the run-up to the vote.
The NLD, the largest of some 80 parties competing nationwide for parliamentary seats, won the last general election in 2015 by a landslide and enjoys name recognition and, its critics say, the advantages of being the incumbent power.
Myint Naing, spokesman for the Union Election Commission (UEC), told a news conference in Naypyidaw on Thursday that balloting would be held in November as planned, but did not elaborate on why a specific date has not been announced.
“We haven’t changed anything about the election schedule,” he said. “So far, we are still containing COVID-19. We still have a few months to go until the election, so there is no change regarding the former schedule.”
Myint Naing added that all political parties must follow specific guidelines to be issued by the Ministry of Health and Sports to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when election campaigning begins.
He also said that the UEC is discussing possibility of holding elections in conflict areas in northern Rakhine state and the Wa Self-Administered Zone. The commission was not able to draw up voter lists for the Wa region for the 2015 general election under the previous government.
Election officials still must determine whether it is safe to hold voting in northern Rakhine state and in Paletwa township of adjacent Chin state, where armed conflict between the Myanmar military and rebel Arakan Army (AA) has raged for 17 months.
More than 160,000 civilians in the region have been displaced as Arakan forces fight for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhines.
“We have asked the relevant ministries, including home affairs, defense, and the Union government, about holding elections in regions such as Rakhine or Wa,” Myint Naing said. “We haven’t gotten an answer yet.”
Nearly 100 political parties will contest in the elections, with 79 fielding candidates in countrywide polls and 18 parties participating in their respective state and regional elections, according to information released by the UEC in May.
Some political party leaders have criticized the UEC for not stating a precise date for the elections, noting that the delay could affect the campaigning of parties other than the NLD.
The commission announced the date for the 2010 elections only two months and 24 days before the Nov. 7 vote, while the date for the 2015 election was set four months before the balloting on Nov. 8.
Thein Tun Oo, spokesman for the opposition, army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), criticized the UEC for a lack of transparency and said that an announcement of a date that is too close to the elections would give the NLD an unfair advantage.
“A close announcement of the election date would allow for only a short period for campaigning for many parties other than the ruling party,” he told RFA. “Ruling party candidates have opportunities to promote themselves through public appearances, so this will give them an unfair advantage.”
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin dismissed the concern that his party was benefiting from uncertainty over the election date and would enjoy an advantage from tardy scheduling of the vote.
“I don’t accept that the postponement of the election will help the ruling party,” he said. “The NLD will be ready whenever the election will be held,” he said.
Swar Myint, executive director of the People's Alliance for Credible Elections, an election monitoring organization, suggested that the UAE consult all political parties on the issue.
“They should get input from political parties on when the elections should be held,” he said. “Only one group making a decision and evaluation is very risky. Now, the commission will single-handedly decide when the election will be held without inputs from different parties. It will draw criticism.”
Despite the UEC’s reconfirmation that the vote will take place roughly five months from now, citizens said that the date could be affected by COVID-19 developments.
“The commission might find it difficult to announce an official date for the elections because of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak,” said Yangon resident Aye Aye Win. “It is reasonable that they are waiting for a more appropriate time to do this.”
More than 37 million people in Myanmar are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, though the number does not include military personnel and their family members, who may have been transferred to different locations. It also does not include voters in the five townships of the Wa Self-Administered Zone on the border with China.
Nomination process begins
The NLD and other major parties, meanwhile, have begun the candidate nomination process.
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin told RFA on Wednesday that township campaign committees and five party members who are also community leaders will consider candidates favored by local residents when making the final selections.
“After they have a candidate list, they have to send it to the regional offices, and then to the NLD’s central office,” he said. “The CEC [Central Executive Committee] will choose the candidates. It’s the NLD’s policy.”
The NLD said its candidates will contest everywhere in the country.
USDP spokesman Thein Tun Oo said party officials also have begun to screen candidates to find ones who are “loyal to our citizens, steadfast in principles, and serve the country and the people.”
Aye Nu Sein a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Arakan National Party (ANP), the dominant political party in Rakhine state, told RFA that it was still uncertain where balloting could be held under conflict conditions.
“We don’t even know in which townships in Rakhine we can hold the elections,” he said. “We have lots of IDPs [internally displaced persons] because of the fighting in northern Rakhine."
"So, given the situation, we can’t work on choosing candidates,” he said.
Sai Leik, general secretary of and spokesman for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said his party will give priority to women, young people, and locals in Shan state when selecting candidates.
“Moreover, the candidates should have good moral behavior and be accepted by the people,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo and Thet Su Sung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.