Myanmar’s Historic 2015 Elections
By William R. Sweeney, Jr., IFES President and CEO
On Election Day on November 8, Myanmar citizens demonstrated that they are enthusiastically ready for a democratic transition and they took to the streets to exercise their right to vote and have a voice in the future of their country.
In 2010, Myanmar’s election was fatally flawed from the perspective of both the country’s leaders and the international community, notably because the main opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted the election believing the process to be unfair. In 2015, 93 parties contested the election including the NLD, and there are now 33.5 million registered voters on Myanmar’s voter registry. Millions of people voted for the first time on November 8 in a much freer, open and connected society than in 2010. Regardless of the outcome, the democratic philosophy for organizing a society’s future is on the cusp of affirmation for the first time in Myanmar.
Since 1986 in the Philippines when I was an observer for the Marcos-Aquino election, I’ve been privileged to occasionally witness an entire society exercise the vote to direct a country’s future. That’s how I felt on the eve of this election. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) partnered with the Union Election Commission (UEC) to design and deliver the voting process to the people. It was hard work by the IFES team to build trust, capacity and deliverables for the first time in the economically poorest country in Southeast Asia that had been isolated for decades.
Election Administration in Myanmar
On Election Day, polls opened at 6 a.m. At both polling stations where I observed the opening – two schools across the street from each other in Dagon Township – there were lines of voters. All procedures were followed – including the arrival of the advanced boxes just a minute or two before the polls opened – and all the voter education materials were posted. Both polling stations were directed by the principals of the schools; the majority of poll workers for the day were teachers, usually in their uniform of a white blouse and a green longyi.
The voter list for the polling station was supposed to be posted, but such posting was a matter of resources available to each school. The voter list had about twenty names per page and these pages were supposed to be stapled or taped to a board and displayed. While the lists were available at every station, not every station had the ability to post them. One issue was display space – some schools taped the voter list onto bulletin or chalk boards or attached the list to plywood boards. Posting the list was clearly someone’s job! Some polling stations just didn’t have the luxury of space to post a list – they were overwhelmed with the lines of voters. Whether or not the list was posted did not seem to affect the mood of the voters – they were patiently waiting in line to vote.
In Myanmar, each voter received three separate ballots at three separate voting stations organized in a zig-zag pattern. The UEC decided this was the most efficient process for ensuring a minimum of discarded ballots due to errors (e.g., voters placing the wrong ballot in the wrong box) and securing maximum trust. IFES conducted time motion studies to assist the UEC in choosing this specific process. The time motion studies determined that voting should take an average of six minutes; my own timing of stations was an average of eight minutes. Two minutes per voter is not a great discrepancy to each voter, but stretched out over the course of polling, and in light of the fact that most voters arrived at the polling station as soon as it opened at 6 a.m., it made for a long day for poll workers.
In the lead up to Election Day, there was a controversy about advance voting. The legal framework allows for the military, civil servants, those abroad (legally) and others such as students to vote in advance. While inside constituency advance voting was open to observation, outside constituency advance voting started in October and was completed without any observation by party agents, domestic or international observers or the media. The ballots cast through inside constituency advance voting were supposed to be delivered to the appropriate polling station by 6 a.m. on Election Day, which appeared to be the case in most places, and outside constituency votes needed to be delivered by 4 p.m. to the township office.
The lack of transparency for outside constituency advance voting was nearly a fatal flaw in the 2015 Myanmar elections. Suspicions were very high that the advance votes – whenever they arrived and were counted – would be sufficient to overturn the expected victories by the opposition (not just Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, but also the candidates from other parties), leading to victories for the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). IFES repeatedly raised the issue as a concern – as late as my meeting with the Speaker of Myanmar’s lower house of Parliament, U Shwe Mann, in May 2015. But, this process was not going to be changed.
The challenges to the voter registration efforts became clear over the course of the election. Voter records in Myanmar include the voter’s address as well as the name of both the father and mother – which is common practice in a country without surnames. In some places, particularly for migrant workers who may have lived in an area for a decade, there may not always be specific addresses. The only way some people could have been registered would have been through door-to-door canvassing. There were some voters who had national identification cards, but had not appeared on the initial voter lists.
IFES Myanmar accepted responsibility for supporting the UEC in the production of the first digital voter registry in the history of the country for this election. A rule about data processing is “garbage in, garbage out,” in this case that means that bad records create inaccurate voter lists. In 2013, Myanmar’s voter list was a collection of hand written paper lists compiled by a number of agencies. No opposition party trusted the voter list since it was populated with the deceased and did not represent the emerging, changing demography of Myanmar. There can be no understatement of the risk involved with this responsibility. Myanmar has the lowest per capita income in Southeast Asia with the lowest penetration of cell phones and internet connectivity.
As part of the voter list update process, paper records were transformed into a digital list. Voters were given two chances to review the new list. The first verification occurred during the preliminary display phase from April to June 2015 and the second during the national voter list display, which is a legal requirement before a general election and took place from September 14-27. Because of this review period, there were over six million changes incorporated in the final voter list.
Given the outdated data initially provided and the technological challenges, it was a remarkable endorsement of both the voter education campaign and citizens’ engagement that over 20 percent of the list was corrected and those corrections were processed in time for the election. My career includes 19 years in the information technology business and I understand the dynamics of “add, change, delete” to lists. IFES Myanmar in partnership with UEC delivered an exceptional voter list for this election.
In my travels on Election Day, I witnessed less than a handful of issues with the voter’s list and all of those citizen’s complaints were accommodated in a professional fashion by poll workers. Unlike so many election days around the world, the list wasn’t an impediment to participation. The IFES program in partnership with the Union Election Commission was successful. In any society after every election there is work to both improve and update the voter list. Moving forward, public administration disciplines in election administration have to be applied in Myanmar for the first time as an essential component to the electoral reform process.
Securing the Vote for Marginalized Communities
IFES’ work to empower women brought forth two important lessons. First, the IFES-supported “She Leads” program revealed once again the immense value of channeling the energy of community leaders in voter education campaigns. During my luncheon with six participants of the program, the women reported that each had shared their lessons with over 500 people, and one claimed upwards of 2,000 contacts! The women came from all sectors of society: a lawyer, a leader in advocacy for autism, a teacher. Each was a living example of the story about a rock thrown in a pond and sending forth ripples. Second, Creative Home – another civil society organization focused on women’s empowerment – shared a brochure (see below) focused on reminding husbands they had a responsibility to help their wives vote by coming home after voting and taking care of the children so their wives could leave and vote! In many societies where IFES works, women face discrimination from full political participation by household duties, including child care.
The Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI) has been IFES’ lead partner in civil society to engage people with disabilities in this election. In addition to training people across the country, MILI produced a video as part of its voter education effort, which was distributed on social media around the country. In partnership with the UEC, MILI chose 15 pilot accessible polling stations for the November elections. Some were located next to braille schools for persons with visual impairments, and tactile ballots were available in those polling stations. This was a small pilot project, but a step forward in a society where accessibility is not regularly considered when locating polling stations, as one elderly voter pointedly reminded us after his polling station was on the fourth floor of a building without an elevator. Observers regularly saw people in wheelchairs carried up and down stairs by family members and the elderly had plenty of challenges.
The Serenity Initiative (TSI), another IFES partner, works to promote the participation of marginalized groups through its community building work. IFES and TSI first partnered in 2014 for the voter list update pilot. In 2015, IFES and TSI partnered again to support the Myanmar Electoral Resource and Information Network (MERIN), which provides election information and materials to the public. TSI also uses the MERIN resource center to hosts election-related trainings. MERIN’s website provides a host of important election resources, including maps and election FAQs, among other things.
Chairman Tin Aye: We would not be Standing here if not for IFES
Chairman Tin Aye, the Chairman of the Union Election Commission, is a distinguished 70-year old former military leader who is personally committed to the successful introduction of democracy to his country as his professional legacy. He has been an exceptional champion of IFES and our professional recommendations about process and procedures to make this election a success for his country. In my second conversation with him in 2013, he explained that guiding the country to the 2015 elections was his last mission for his country.
A “dialogue” with civil society or the political opposition or a press conference was not part of his culture or training. Input from stakeholders or challenges to decisions had not been something he had to deal with. Yet, Chairman Aye developed a relationship of trust and comfort with IFES. We secured working space in the UEC Headquarters and IFES staff traveled to the capital of Naypyidaw every week for almost three years to work with commission staff and conduct workshops.
During the busy period announcing results as they came in, the Chairman did agree to see me after the election. My 45-minute session was the only meeting for the Chairman with an international NGO the week after the election. After a successful Election Day, the Chairman said, “we wouldn’t be standing here if not for IFES.”
IFES and the UEC
The workshops and consultations with civil society, political parties and the media were revelations to all involved. People in a society where the government never engaged in consultation or dialogue were stunned to have government officials join in a learning and listening capacity. During one workshop concerning access for people with disabilities in the election, the Chairman joined the discussion. In front of the media, he sat in a wheelchair and attempted to move through the mock polling station. As important as the media coverage of the event was, more meaningful was the Chairman’s direction to initiate regulatory changes to improve access because of the experience.
IFES became a partner with the UEC in part because we were the secretariat for a joint donor fund from the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DANIDA), the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (SDC), the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It was far more efficient and effective for the UEC to have one principal rather than coordinate consultations with a dozen smaller donors and support organizations. IFES’ level of information and consultation with the UEC also allowed us, and me in particular, to defend the commission from unfair criticism in some cases by the international community over the past few years.
Media Center and Results Announcement
IFES has built a strong discipline around the process of working with election commissions to share results in accord with election law and best global practices. Usually the results from a poll center get posted there and the polling center official shares the results with the next level of the election management body. Party and civil society observers often take a cell phone picture or call in the results to their own networks. In Myanmar and other countries, IFES has also arranged the process to scan all the poll center tally sheets so there is a record for the electoral dispute resolution process. On Election Day, part of the deliverable is a facility with work space, internet connections, electricity, and space for press announcements, among other things, where election officials can announce results and are available to the media.
In Myanmar, there were two media facilities. Both sites had been part of a work plan originally accepted, deferred and ordered to be implemented a few days before the election. Originally reluctant, the UEC got used to the public platform and took pride in announcing the results at regular intervals and holding live press conferences daily.
Myanmar has a very complicated tabulation system. Results move from the polling station through a few levels, which makes providing accurate results difficult in a country with unreliable electricity and phone and internet coverage. Myanmar is also the poorest country in Southeast Asia with low capacity, particularly after years of isolation due to sanctions. The intense and complicated political history of Myanmar translates into deep suspicions concerning posting election results.
The polls closed at 4 p.m. on November 8 and the counting started and continued into the night around the country. The UEC was reluctant to post results prematurely, concerned by potential unchecked errors. Without a network to collect results, as well as a reluctance to engage in a confrontation with the media, the UEC did not formally announce any results nationally until the day after election at 3 p.m.
Observations on the NLD
All along, the NLD asserted that if voters were allowed to vote freely – something they didn’t think would happen – then the party would overwhelmingly win; otherwise, they would allege electoral fraud. Given the NLD’s history of being persecuted and that U Win Htein, the party’s Spokesman, had been a political prisoner, it would be reasonable to understand the NLD’s public posture for the past three years, assuming that the UEC was preparing to facilitate another fraudulent election.
Any observer had to be impressed with the NLD’s Election Day effort. Every polling station we visited had a NLD party agent present. Many NLD agents had a hand counter so they could keep their own accurate count of turnout. Some NLD observers had hands free cell phone equipment. It was also clear that their effort to collect election results gave the NLD the chance to write the story of the election starting Monday night.
The NLD margin of victory is really hard to appreciate from outside the country. Going into the election, analysts thought the government party (USDP), NLD and ethnic parties each had a lock on about 25 percent of the next Parliament; a quarter of the seats were reserved for the military. The NLD recruited and slated candidates against ethnic candidates, which caused many analysts to worry about post-election coalition building. But, the NLD simply ran the table. Senior USDP leaders – including government ministers and the Speaker of the lower house of Parliament – were defeated by NLD candidates. Over 6,000 candidates ran in the general elections, two of who died of natural causes before November 8. One of those candidates was from NLD, and he still won the election!
Closing Thoughts on Myanmar’s Historic Elections
Election Day was a celebration of the inevitable democratic potential for Myanmar. Regardless of the results, millions of people enthusiastically voted for the first time and they were excited! On Election Day, I saw seas of voters patiently waiting in line to vote. This enthusiasm can’t be reversed or postponed. Myanmar is on the cusp of a democratic revolution.
I first discussed this election and the UEC-IFES partnership in December 2012 and first visited Myanmar in April 2013. Virtually every conversation since has been about trying to simply keep up with the dynamics of transformation of this country. The democratic genie can’t be put back in the bottle and the citizens of Myanmar are not open to any conversation about a return to the past.
Governments in many countries with IFES projects take an enormous risk when they schedule an election. The risk to them is obvious: they could lose. The risks to the country range from the immediate challenge of domestic tranquility to the undermining of all confidence in domestic and foreign investment in the country. President U Thein Sein started a democratic transition process in Myanmar when he decided to implement reforms back in 2011. After November 8, Myanmar is one step close to building a more inclusive, more democratic society.