The New Straits Times, Malaysia
October 15, 2010
Assuming that all statements made by the Burmese authorities are to be believed and that the Nov 7 ballot will really herald civilian rule, then the only test of whether elections will usher in a new era of democracy is that they are free and fair.
While a boycott as urged by Burma’s oppositionists may serve to signal the international community that the results will not reflect popular sentiment, non-participation is likely to benefit the ruling military junta. Presumably, those not opting to exercise their right to vote would be staunch democrats who abhor the machinations of a dictatorial few.
Others suspect that the odds would be stacked against parties competing against the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), which is supported by the junta. Nevertheless, the 1990 elections had rejected the current rulers. Although the victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was subsequently rescinded, another go at the polls could still in some measure reflect public opinion.
If sentiments have remained unchanged after 20 years, free and fair elections could end up with an adverse result for the USDP because of its connections to the junta. This time around the NLD is not in the running but, although not ideal, there are still 36 parties to choose from. The generals’ fears of a sudden loss of power would be allayed by their quota of seats in the new Parliament.
The United Nations is urging Asean to play a role in ensuring that democracy will be at work in spite of the junta’s stranglehold on the conduct of the elections. These elections will be the best chance yet for Asean to repair the damage that Burma has done to its credentials.
Whatever the election outcome, the 20 per cent of parliamentary seats reserved for the military under the new constitution ensures it of a continuing role in government. Asean, always careful about not interfering in members’ affairs, can press the generals for a free and fair vote without the implicit suggestion that they should be booted out. This can be achieved by sending teams from member nations to monitor the elections. The civilian population can then be assured of some freedom from military interference. If Indonesia is anything to go by, a military-backed transition to genuine civilian leadership can ultimately produce an elected legislature worthy of the name.
While it is true that loosening campaign restrictions and releasing political detainees will prove the junta’s good intentions, accepting monitoring by its Asean partners will reflect a long-delayed appreciation of Burma’s membership.