YANGON, MYANMAR (Nov. 10, 2020) — In a preliminary statement released today, The Carter Center commended the efforts of the election administration, election contestants, citizen observers, media, and voters to overcome the challenges that COVID-19 presented to the conduct of Myanmar’s general elections.
The Carter Center found that voters were able to freely express their will at the polls and choose their elected representatives. However, the Center also noted that the quality of democracy in Myanmar continues to be undermined by serious deficiencies in the legal framework, including the reserved seats for military appointees, as well as by ongoing conflict in many areas of the country and by the exclusion of more than two million people from the electoral process because of violence or discrimination. It highlighted the need for reform to bring the country in line with international obligations for democratic elections.
Important aspects of the electoral process were impacted by restrictions imposed to combat the pandemic, including the ability of parties and candidates to communicate their views to voters and for voters to receive information about the process. Following a sometimes-contentious preelection period, election day itself occurred without major irregularities being reported by mission observers.
On election day, a total of 43 Carter Center observers visited 234 polling stations in 10 states and regions. The conduct of voting was assessed positively in 94% of polling stations visited. Where counting was observed, the process was conducted according to procedures and in the presence of party agents. Tabulation of results proceeded smoothly, although access for mission observers to tabulation centers was limited or denied in three cases. The Carter Center will continue to monitor the tabulation of results and the postelection complaint process.
Key preliminary Carter Center findings include:
Legal framework: Constitutional reforms are needed to address the issue of reserved military seats, the inequality of the vote across constituencies, the undue restrictions on who can be president, and the appointment procedures for the Union Election Commission that undermine its independence. In addition, discriminatory citizenship requirements continue to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who lost the right to vote prior to the 2015 elections and to limit the rights of some ethnic minority citizens to stand as candidates.
Election administration: The election administration made laudable efforts to update the voter roll, train election officials, and adapt procedures for elderly voters. However, the Union Election Commission’s decisionmaking lacked transparency in some instances. Decisions on election cancellations and postponements, which disenfranchised some 1.4 million voters, were not supported by transparent criteria set out in advance. Management of advance out-of-constituency voting lacked safeguards to ensure the secrecy and integrity of the vote. The expanded use of homebound voting facilitated participation but was affected by unclear or inconsistently applied procedures.
Voter registration: Most stakeholders positively evaluated the quality of voter rolls. On election day, the mission did not find significant issues with the voter rolls in polling stations visited, although the media reported that voters were missing from voter rolls for the ethnic affairs minister races in Mandalay and Yangon.
Candidate registration: While voters had a wide range of political alternatives from which to choose, citizenship-related eligibility criteria resulted in the denial of registration or the deregistration of a number of candidates, particularly those from religious and ethnic minorities. Deregistration continued well into the campaign period, preventing political parties from replacing candidates. Finally, collection of data on candidates’ ethnicities and religions does not appear to comply with the constitutional right to privacy and international data protection principles.
Participation of women: While there has been a gradual increase in the number of women candidates since 2010, only 16 percent of candidates in the 2020 elections were women. Although some parties implemented internal equity policies, temporary special measures for greater inclusion of women should be considered as a remedy. Women also remained underrepresented in the higher levels of electoral bodies, with no women serving as UEC commissioners.
Campaign environment: The visibility and intensity of public campaigning was impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Nevertheless, two-thirds of the contestants interviewed by The Carter Center reported having been able to campaign freely and on equal conditions, although there were reports of interference with campaigning in some areas, inconsistent enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions, and claims of privileged access of the governing party. In addition, the UEC’s review of political party scripts for free airtime on television and radio appeared overly stringent and at odds with international obligations on freedom of expression. The campaign was generally peaceful. However, there were isolated clashes between party supporters, leading to one death, and three candidates in Rakhine State were abducted.
Election dispute resolution: Voluntary mechanisms of electoral dispute resolution set up with the Union Election Commission and through the political party code of conduct appeared to be effective in defusing tensions, encouraging dialogue, and building consensus.
Social media: Most contestants actively used social media, in particular Facebook, to reach their constituents. Carter Center social media monitoring identified substantial amounts of election-related disinformation, which frequently contained hate speech directed at ethnic and religious minorities or women.
Election observation: Despite accreditation issues, citizen observers were able to observe most aspects of the election process. Their work, and that of party agents on election day, enhanced transparency. Some observers, including ones from The Carter Center, faced additional reporting requirements on deployment plans that reduced their ability to ensure transparency.
The work of the Carter Center mission has also been affected by COVID-19 prevention measures. The mission adapted its approach to enable observation activities while maintaining its core principles of independence, impartiality, and fact-based reporting. The mission could not access the process fully because of travel restrictions and therefore conducted hundreds of meetings remotely. As the mission was not able to fully observe the campaign and election preparations directly, it is not able to provide a thorough assessment of all aspects of the process.
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A not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization, The Carter Center has helped to improve life for people in over 80 countries by resolving conflicts; advancing democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; preventing diseases; and improving mental health care. The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, in partnership with Emory University, to advance peace and health worldwide.