Citizens are clearly anxious to have a say in their country's future, yet the legitimacy of the historic election on November 8 is already under threat
It’s clear that Myanmar authorities need to make quick and crucial adjustments to electoral procedures in the wake of problems that marred advance polls held last weekend outside the country. Many of its citizens were turned away as “unqualified” to cast ballots, a worrying situation with the general election coming up on November 8.
This is an election that is widely expected to alter Myanmar’s political landscape significantly. Questions of polling legitimacy are to be avoided at all costs.
Next month’s election is already historic – the first time in 25 years that the two major rivals are facing one another. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party can only be anticipating a solid challenge from the opposition National League for Democracy. Citizens at home and abroad are eager to exercise their right to vote and foster change in a country that’s been under military or quasi-military rule for decades.
Their fear this week, however, is that the slew of technical glitches that hampered advance polling might bar millions of them from being counted in the final tally in November.
The 1982 Citizenship Law offers a narrow definition of citizenship, recognising only those whose parents were citizens or registered members of an ethnic background residing in Myanmar (Burma) prior to the British takeover in 1923.
In line with this law, many ethnic people, notably the Muslim Rohingya, are automatically denied voting rights, and more than 100 would-be candidates were disqualified from running in this election. The Muslim candidates who were turned away also cited religious discrimination.
Only a fraction of Myanmar citizens living outside the country were able to participate in advance polling due to technical errors blamed on embassy and other administrative staff and on procedures that were deemed too complicated. Ballot cards from some constituencies failed to arrive on time or were jumbled with others and rendered unusable.
In Thailand, home to some three million Myanmar nationals, only 3,000 registered to vote four months ago, but even so, only a few hundred of them were actually able to cast ballots last Saturday.
There were understandable complaints of immense time wasted. Many people spent months checking registrations in their hometowns and confirming personal information with the embassy in Bangkok and finally their eligibility. On the day, however, embassy officials could find no ballot cards in their name or discovered their cards had been mixed in with those from other constituencies.
Rather than allowing for a measure of flexibility, as might be expected in overseas voting, the officials merely told the unfortunate registrants to return home to Myanmar to vote. Attesting to the keen interest in making their votes count, a lot of these people told reporters they were indeed prepared to fly home on November 8 to vote, despite still being unsure they would be allowed to do so.
The Union Election Commission assigned embassies in 37 countries to conduct advance polling, setting their own dates as a matter of convenience to regular operations. Some embassies scheduled one or two days, while others were more flexible and allotted longer periods. The embassy in Singapore was evidently surprised to find 20,000 expatriates applying to vote and, given that it could only accommodate 3,000 per day, has extended the polling another three days, until tomorrow.
It appears to have been the technical issues that kept voter turn-out low in Thailand and some other countries. The Election Commission has to get to the bottom of this and find out why democracy was denied to so many of its citizens. For those who left the Bangkok embassy disappointed, it becomes the folly of closing the barn door after the horses have fled. But, with determination and luck, a similar debacle can be avoided on November 8.