Nov 05, 2010

Burma elections: Path to democracy?

The national elections to be held in Burma on Sunday are dismissed by many as a sham, while others see them as the beginning of a less authoritarian system.


Below is an article published by UNPO:


On 7 November 2010, Burma will host local and national elections for the first time in 20 years. Last time, in 1990, the winning coalition of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic minority parties were obstructed from taking power. NLD's leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been put under house arrest for 15 years of the past two decades.


The lack of freedom of expression, assembly and association will impair holding democratic elections. Participating in the elections, especially in opposition of the junta, brings the risk of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture and sometimes extrajudicial executions. The elections on 7 November are not expected to unleash true democracy after almost four decades of military dictatorships. Burma's dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, and his Myanmar military, the tatmadew, are assured of 25% of all seats in the House of Parliament, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. The constitution also requires a 75% majority vote for the passing of new laws, which gives the tatmadew effective veto power over the legislative body.


The largest opposition party accounts for 160 candidates, against the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party holding 1,100 candidates. The question has arisen whether Burmese citizens should vote or not. It is widely believed that General Than Shwe will become president of the Union Republic of Myanmar, running over opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and thus destroying the chance of pre-democratic forces taking over from military governance. UNPO's view that a democratic transition is unlikely is shared with Human Rights Watch researcher David Mathieson, who states that regime change is not encouraged because the West has low expectations for Burma and accepts any outcome.


There are many objections to voting in these elections. The 2008 Constitution set up by the junta is undemocratic and legitimizes military rule while excluding important stakeholders and political opposition parties. Many ethnic leaders and political activists remain detained in prisons. The political climate is treacherous and freedom of speech, association and assembly are not assured for voters nor political parties. The Election Commission consists of 18 junta members, damaging its neutrality and independence and not reaching minimal international standards for elections. International election observation requests have been refused by the Election Commission.


Nonetheless, the democratic opposition tries to compete in this election because it is "the only game in town." Although the military ensured itself of power within Parliament, the election of democratic parties can offer counterweight in the new bicameral parliament and hopefully achieve gradual change in the political environment after the elections. The Constitution designed new political space and opportunity for civilian-military relationships. If this opportunity remains untouched, opposition parties will remain sidelined after the elections. Political parties have been built up and started campaigning throughout the country. Even though they only stand a chance of winning a small fraction of Parliament seats, they consider it a first big step towards more democracy. Amending unjust constitutional clauses is the opposition's ambition, which stands no chance if they do not receive enough votes.


Ethnic minorities constitute around 35-40% of the population and play an important role in Burma's political opposition and democracy movement. Amnesty International appealed the Burmese authorities to stop their repression of election activities and political rights. The Burma elections are not achieving the international democratic standard, but might be the only opportunity for the opposition to show its support from society and exert pressure on the Burmese authorities to improve the political and human rights of all citizens. We are looking forward to the results of the outcome and the international reactions to these. It is a challenging task to keep improving Burma's road to full democracy, but a worthy cause that needs additional steps and initiatives to make the next elections free and fair.