On 8 November 2020, Myanmar plans to hold a general election despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 general elections are a significant test for Myanmar’s democratic transition and the consolidation of electoral democracy in the country.
The United Nations International Day of Democracy Day provides an opportunity to reflect on steps taken by Myanmar’s key election stakeholders – the Union Election Commission (UEC), political parties, civil society – to prepare inclusive 2020 elections to the benefit of all voters in Myanmar, thereby contributing to strengthening Myanmar’s democratic process and its citizens’ ideal of democracy.
Addressing EU Election Observation Recommendations
With the support of the European Union (EU) funded programme ‘Support to Electoral Processes and Democracy – STEP Democracy’, the UEC works to address 2015 EU election observation recommendations in the administration of elections by enhancing transparency, increasing outreach to political parties and civil society, improving its internal communication and clarifying candidate nomination and publishing revised advance voting and election observation procedures. The UEC has also embraced technology in a STEP workshop organized by Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD) with Facebook for all 14 sub-commissions to introduce Facebook Community Standards resulting in the verification of sub-commission Facebook pages to improve communication with voters, disseminate information and counter misinformation.
Engaging in constructive dialogue with civil society
Despite increased public scrutiny, the UEC engaged with civil society and international election observation organizations in a STEP workshop facilitated by International IDEA and Democracy Reporting International (DRI) to review accreditation procedures, which took on board civil society proposals and resulted in revised accreditation procedures published in July 2020. The UEC and 76 CSOs also discussed election preparations due to the challenges posed by COVID-19 in a UEC led Conference facilitated by STEP and CEPPS. The conference enabled both sides to voice their concerns and inform each other of their respective roles and expectations in the elections, including a discussion of possible ways to work together to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on the right to participate in public affairs. Civil society advocacy groups cooperating with STEP – such as the Vision 2020 campaign movement – continue to constructively engage the UEC to advocate for transparency and a conduct of elections that respects their mutual roles.
CSOs are also preparing to observe the 2020 elections and monitor social media based on methodologies developed in STEP strategic planning workshops with the support of DRI.
The UEC has increased its outreach to political parties via its sub-commissions through countrywide STEP dialogues facilitated by DIPD which focused on topics such as electoral rules and regulations (e.g. candidate registration and campaign finance), dispute resolution and voter education.
Strengthening women and youth participation in political parties
Political Parties in Myanmar – as the proverbial gatekeepers of democracy - have worked to strengthen their internal democracy and give voice to the concerns of women and youth by learning how to establish political party structures such as women caucuses and youth wings on region and state level in STEP workshops and trainings conducted by DIPD and the Netherlands Institute for Multilateral Democracy NIMD/DEMO Finland. More than twenty political parties sought to increase cooperation and establish networks in multi-party events facilitated by DIPD and strengthen women’s and youth political participation through action plans.
In preparation for the 2020 elections, more than 100 women politicians worked in DIPD and NIMD/DEMO facilitated STEP workshops and trainings on their campaign management skills, including public speaking and empowerment, and increased their knowledge of Myanmar’s political system and the Code of Conduct for Political Parties. Given the challenges posed by social media, political party representatives learned about Facebook Community Standards, reporting mechanisms for hate speech and misinformation, and the process of page verification in a STEP workshop organized by DIPD in cooperation with Facebook.
Political parties also worked on conflict resolution skills in STEP trainings conducted for more than 170 political party representatives by NIMD/DEMO on the principles of conflict resolution, increasing their mediation, negotiation, and dialogue skills. Policy positioning workshops for 25 political parties on regional level helped political parties to better define their election programmes ahead of the 2020 elections.
On sub-national level, the STEP Women’s Academy organized by DRI involved more than 1,500 participants and provided women municipal committee members with a platform to engage with township residents to outline and discuss municipal development plans and challenges and to respond to citizens’ concerns.
Voter and civic education
The public benefited from a series of STEP voter and civic education activities focused on new voters, women and youth in remote areas organized by the Scholar Institute, Panna Institute and Badeidha Moe. Before COVID-19 restrictions took effect, civic education sessions for more than 1500 adults and 200 students/teachers in Kachin, Chin, Magway and Ayeyarwady state/regions were conducted. Voter education trainings and voter mobilization will continue ahead of the 2020 elections.
Under the leadership of the UEC, the TV broadcast series ‘MyVote’ supported by STEP Democracy aims to provide the public with different perspectives of challenges faced by voters in the election process and information on the election process.
A series of mobile applications endorsed by the UEC with the aim of providing accurate and timely information to voters, including the ‘MVoter2020’ application developed by STEP Democracy in cooperation with The Asia Foundation (TAF) containing verified candidate data and key election information, will be launched ahead of the 2020 elections.
Democracy is a process as much as a goal, requiring the cooperation and good will of many election stakeholders to ensure the full participation of all citizens in elections. On Democracy Day and in times of COVID-19, it is a good time to highlight the efforts of Myanmar’s election stakeholders to uphold its principles.