Why the April-Fools By-Elections Will be Free and Fair
28 January 2012: (Editorial) With the by-elections on the horizon in Burma and the main opposition National League for Democracy preparing to enter the race, there have been calls on the Burmese authorities to ensure a free and fair environment for the April 1 polls. But compared with the November 2010 general elections, there is every indication that the bi-elections will be free and fair.
One may ask why after all the troubles that the previous regime went through to try every trick in the book to ensure the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) victory in 2010 the new government would now decide to allow free and fair elections? The answer is pretty obvious: Thein Sein’s government has more to lose from rigging the elections in its favour again than ensuring substantial victory for the NLD.
First, the world is ready to judge the fairness of the upcoming elections by how substantial victory the NLD gains. Anything less for the NLD would give the impression that the elections weren’t free. And Thein Sein and his advisors are well aware of this. This is why Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was so confident in promising fully free and fair elections during his official visit to India this week. It shouldn’t be surprising if President Thein Sein even decides to allow international observers to monitor the by-elections. This would earn him extra credits from the United States and the European Union, which have both expressed readiness to reward any positive measures by the new government.
The EU annual review of Burma sanctions is due in April and the Burmese government can’t simply afford to have the EU sanctions renewed. The bi-elections will be a key factor in the EU decision to extend or lift the sanctions. The decision to hold the bi-elections on April 1 was no coincidence. It was carefully timed preciselyfor this.The world’s most powerful regional bloc has already lifted travel sanctions on the top Burmese leadership and has indicated that it will consider further measures.
Second, it appears that President Thein Sein has planned for this scenario way ahead of time. There is no doubt that the amendment of the election laws was made specifically for the NLD to re-register and contest the by-elections. Having the NLD presence in Parliament, however symbolic, is certain to prop the legitimacy of President Thein Sein’s government and the new political institutions that were created out of the much-criticized 2008 constitution.
Third, there are only a total of 48 seats that are open for contest in the by-elections. For a party that already controls 78 percent of seats in the combined bicameral Houses (not including the 25 percent army appointees), the USDP has no reason to care about the NLD winning all contestable seats. 40 of the 48 seats open for contest in the bi-elections are for the lower House or Pyithu Hluttaw. Even if the NLD wins all of the 40 seats in the lower House, the party will constitute less than 10 percent of the total elected seats in Pyithu Hluttaw. Given that Thein Sein desperately needs the NLD and Suu Kyi’s presence in the Parliament, it is likely the USDP would not seriously run against the NLD in the April bi-elections.
Taking all these into account, we can expect a rather free and fair by-elections come April. The international community shouldn’t use the results of what is already expected to be free and fair by-elections as another indication for progress, and consequently reward the government. Rather than focusing too much on the April by-elections, the international community can make a more effective use of their influence by calling for the immediate cessation of the Burma Army offensives in Kachin State.