Myanmar’s much-anticipated election is due to take place on Sunday but problems with missing ballot papers and inaccurate voter lists are adding to long-held concerns from political opponents and advocacy groups that the poll will not be free and fair.
The election will be the first since a nominally civilian government replaced military rule in 2011 and is widely considered to be a referendum on Myanmar’s reform process.
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The international community has much invested in the success of election.
Donors, including the EU, Japan and the US, have poured billions of dollars into development programmes aimed at turning this former secretive and authoritarian state into a fledgling democracy – a political example in a region where, in many countries, democracy has stalled.
But their investment, in both money and political will, is looking increasingly less likely to achieve the desired outcome.
“Many Western governments are hoping this election will be credible,” says Matthew Smith from the rights group Fortify Rights.
“But now that we know it won’t be, they should resist any temptation to rationalise or explain away the exclusion of Muslims and conflict-affected communities.”
Left off the list
Advanced voting in embassies around the world faced a litany of problems.
In Singapore, where about 20,000 people wanted to vote, some found that they were not on the electoral list, there were reports of insufficient ballot papers, and voters said there were too few staff to deal with the process at the embassy.
The embassy introduced a daily quota of 3,000 voters to help deal with the issues.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s population of mainly professional and wealthy Myanmarese has launched a “Fly to Vote” campaign, with many planning to return to Myanmar this weekend in an attempt to cast their ballots.
In Seoul and Tokyo, those who managed to vote complained of missing ballot papers, long queues and limited hours available to cast their ballots.
Others were not so lucky. Voters who were confident they had completed the registration process could not find their names on the list. The ballot papers meant for Tokyo, with its high number of voters, ended up in Cairo and vice versa.
There is a fear that any missing ballot papers could be fraudulently filled.
While Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is expected to make significant gains in the polls, they need a strong result to gain power.
The ruling party, Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), only needs 10 to 15 percent of the available seats in parliament due to 25 percent of seats being pre-allocated to non-elected military appointees.
With so much at stake, there are fears that problems with the early voting could be more than just an issue of incompetence.
But the Union Election Commission (UEC), the agency tasked with running the election, denied that voters were intentionally disenfranchised.
Nelly Sann, an external relations officer at the UEC, told Al Jazeera: “Although people say it was our responsibility, it was not.
“It was the responsibility of the voters to register using the right form. If they didn’t do this, then they don’t get the right to vote.”
In a problem reminiscent of the much-maligned 2010 election, voter lists across the country have been plagued with inconsistencies. Lists of eligible voters were released by the election commission on two separate occasions, but remain rife with errors.
In Yangon’s densely populated Hlaing Tharyar Township, up to 200,000 voters have been left off the list.
The area is home to migrant workers who have flocked to Yangon to find jobs. However, many of these people are internally displaced and do not have the required documents to register to vote.
In the region of Ayeyarwady, a hotly contested seat with a large population, the voter list remains incomplete.
Tin Aye, the chairman of the UEC, is a former army general and member of parliament from the ruling USDP.
His past comments suggest a lack of impartiality. In June 2015, he said: “As a chairman, I am not supposed to have attachment to the party … I have an attachment, but I don’t put it at the forefront of my mind … I want the USDP to win, but to win fairly, not by cheating.”
“People don’t trust the UEC,” said David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch. “The UEC have done all they can to make people not trust them. They are seen as proxies of the military government and the regime.”
An international election adviser, who did not want to be identified as he works closely with the Myanmar government, told Al Jazeera: “There are multiple different ways that an election result can be manipulated. Voter lists [are] one of the main ones.”
He did not confirm that any such tactics have been used in this election.
However, the adviser added: “The government has come a long way. They have been working well with civil society groups and running education campaigns for voters.
“You have to remember that civil society was marginalised in this country for many, many years.”
Under the current constitution, Suu Kyi is ineligible to lead the country. Her possible path to the presidency has been blocked by a law that makes her foreign passport-holding children a barrier to holding office.
The Rohingya Muslim minority has been barred from voting, alongside other minority groups, in a controversial move that marks them as non-citizens and, as such, erodes their eligibility to take part.
In an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, where anti-Muslim sentiment runs strong, rights groups say Buddhist nationalism is a policy across the ruling USDP and the main opposition group.
According to Mathieson: “I think it’s just outright marginalisation of a minority. It makes no sense electorally.
“In the last election in 2010, the Rohingya voted, and they voted disproportionately for the ruling USDP party.”
Ongoing controversy over voter lists and the huge number of disenfranchised voters have put the credibility of the election result in doubt.
In a news conference in Yangon on Thursday, Suu Kyi addressed her fears that the election, and its result, could be manipulated by the ruling party.
Asked how vigilant she was to the possibility of fraud, she said: “If it looks too suspicious then I think we will have to make a fuss about it.”