The Union Election Commission (UEC), with a retired military general at its helm, has faced recent criticism from Burma’s opposition political parties after it moved to tighten electoral rules, with some questioning whether an unreformed commission is capable of acting as a neutral arbiter ahead of elections next year.
The electoral bylaws approved earlier this month include a reduction in the length of the campaigning period from 60 days to 30, and a requirement that candidates get approval from authorities in advance of holding political rallies, in addition to other new restrictions.
The fact that UEC Chairman Tin Aye is an ex-general as well as a former senior member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—and in 2010 won a seat in Parliament under the USDP’s banner—has aroused the concern of political parties, many of which have expressed dismay at the legal limitations on Burma’s electoral process.
Also rankling critics, members of election commissions at all levels are, in many cases, retired military officers appointed by the government. Over 60 colonels and captains a couple of months ago were transferred to the civilian administration and appointed as district- and township-level election commission chairmen.
Given the election body’s current makeup from the Union level on down, some political parties see a stacked deck ahead of the 2015 election.
Tin Aye insists otherwise.
“I don’t have a tendency toward jungle law, nor bias. I will never try dishonest means and I don’t like foul play,” the UEC chairman said at a “Stakeholders’ Conference on Ensuring Free and Fair Elections” in Rangoon on July 20.
The nation’s largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has issued a statement calling for changes to the electoral bylaws.
According to NLD lawmaker Win Myint, the opposition in its July 21 statement suggested that the commission’s members must have steered clear of politics for at least five years. The NLD also justified its objection by noting that the bylaws prescribe new provisions that did not exist in 1990 and 2010, the last two times Burma held elections. Examples include a provision that allows election monitoring at polling stations only by commission-designated individuals and a requirement that any decision to invalidate a vote be subject to the approval of the commission.
“We issued the statement because the bylaws include new things,” said Win Myint. “Though [the commission] is trumpeting free and fair elections, it can’t be that it is free and fair only on Election Day. The laws surrounding the election must also be free and fair, only then can there be a free and fair election.”
Likewise, the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), in its own statement, called for reorganizing the commissions at the various levels of government, replacing current members with respected community elders and lawmakers elected by people.
UEC Director Hla Maung Cho has played down the military’s UEC presence.
“Only one-third of the election commission members are retired military officers. The rest are civilians,” he said.
Upper House lawmaker Hla Swe from the USDP said he supported the actions of the UEC, describing them as “necessary.”
“In some countries, electoral campaigns are only allowed for 10 days,” he said.
USDP Victory ‘By Hook or Crook’
USDP chairman and Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann has frequently predicted his party’s victory in 2015, saying the USDP is transforming itself into “the people’s party.”
Some say the ruling party fears a landslide victory by the opposition, which might then use its newly gained political power to settle scores.
“We think so, but no matter what party wins the election, it is important that the past is forgotten and forgiven,” said Aye Maung of the Arakan National Party. “If we are to build a democratic federal Union, we have to forget and forgive the past and work in collaboration toward that goal.”
The chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Gen. Gun Maw, said the electoral stakes were high.
“If the USDP doesn’t win the next election, it will never win again,” he said. “If it loses the next election, the power of the military may also decrease. So they will, by hook or crook, try to win the next election for fear that they may be hit back.”
Despite calls for the replacement of ex-military officers with civilians in the election commission, that reshuffling is unlikely because the 2008 Constitution grants the president absolute power to form the commission.
“In the 2010 election, since the elections were mainly overseen by government-appointed township administrators, there was bias,” said Saw Than Myint, an NBF spokesman.
“[Political parties] don’t like the commission’s current actions either and have no complete trust in it. That’s why they’re calling for reorganizing the commission,” he added.
“It seems that the USDP are scared after it suffered a resounding defeat by the NLD in the  by-election. So it will, by fair means or foul, try to win the coming elections,” said a Lower House lawmaker on condition of anonymity.
“Now, it is trying to introduce a proportional representation system in the Parliament. Again, since many commission members are their men, the USDP can’t be underestimated in 2015 election,” he added.
Though there were complaints to the UEC and judicial authorities concerning voting irregularities in the 2010 election, which was won handily by the USDP, there was no follow-up by the commission.