Myanmar decided to go ahead with the scheduled general elections in November amid a rising number of COVID-19 infections. This added a new layer of complexity to elections that already would have been challenging under normal circumstances. International IDEA, under the EU-funded STEP Democracy programme supported the UEC in its efforts to ensure voter safety on E-Day.
The polls carried a double threat: fearful voters might not turn out, out of fear of getting infected, and crowded polling stations could fuel a new wave of infections.
“I was worried that I might get infected on E-Day,” said Ko Phone Myint Min, an NGO-worker from Insein Township, Yangon.
(Photo: International IDEA/STEP Democracy)
International IDEA, under the EU-funded STEP Democracy programme, supported the Union Election Commission (UEC) in its efforts to lower the infection risks at the polling stations and to make it possible for voters like Ko Phone Myint Min to safely cast their vote.
International IDEA shared knowledge resources with the Union Election Commission that drew lessons learned from other countries around the world, such as the South Korean elections in April 2020. One technical paper covered guidelines and procedures meant to increase safety at polling stations on E-Day to manage expectations and providing advice on necessary safe-guards for not only its polling staff but also for the voters. The UEC took the advice on board and made COVID-19 prevention one of its priorities for the election.
On a more practical level, IDEA donated 50,000 face shields and 50,000 bottles of hand sanitizers for the auxiliary police, to be used on election day along with materials donated by other partners. The materials were handed over to the Ministry of Home Affairs in time for country-wide distribution, which allowed the UEC to provide adequate and safe security at the polling stations on E-day.
(Photo: International IDEA/STEP Democracy)
The UEC took a range of measures aimed at increasing the safety of the vote. To avoid crowding in front of notice boards in the wards and villages, the UEC created an online platform that enabled voters to check the voter lists through their mobile phones, and out-of-constituency voters could cast their vote at their current location by using a special form.
The election authority also modified its procedures to allow voters in quarantine centers and hospitals to exercise their voting rights. The most vulnerable – pregnant women, elderly people – were assisted by mobile teams, who collected ballots door-to-door from 29 October to 5 November, especially in areas where the infection rates were high. Government officials who had to travel on E-Day, military personnel, detainees, students, and workers who were out of constituency or abroad were able to vote ten days before E-Day. Notwithstanding the out-of-constituency and advance-voting schemes, the Ministry of Health and Sports announced that its movement restrictions would be lifted on E-Day for voters in 57 ‘stay at home’ townships.
An important priority for the UEC was to avoid overcrowding, to reduce the risk of a surge in infections after the elections. The number of polling stations was therefore increased to 43,200. On average, 886 voters cast their votes per polling station.
In collaboration with the health authorities the UEC developed special procedures to prevent COVID-19 infections at the polling stations. The procedures were tested in June and October through two simulated voting exercises.
An illustrated brochure prepared by International IDEA under the STEP programme was used by the public health authorities to provide COVID-19 information to users of mobile-based social media platforms. The brochure was sent to 1.7 million Viber users across the country.
Did all the hard work pay-off?
Ko Phone Myint Min has mixed feelings. “I informed myself well before E-Day and I cast my vote in person. I got up early and felt safe. I think the preventive measures at the polling stations were not that systematic, though, but the election staff there did as best as they possibly could. They separated groups of five and disinfected them and distributed preventive materials. People were allowed in the polling station group by group.”
Ma Soe Sandar Aye, an office clerk from North Okkalapa, Yangon, had a different experience. “I voted in person at the polling station on November 8,” she says. “I felt at risk of COVID-19 infection. Many people were queuing in front of the polling station without proper social distancing. Face shields and hand gel were distributed, but only inside of the polling station. Also, there was no social distancing inside.”
Despite all the hard work of the UEC, and millions of disciplined voters and polling workers, according to data from the Ministry of Health and Sports the number of daily infections increased in the days after the elections. Although it cannot be said with certainty, it is likely that there is a link between the increased infection rate and millions turning out to vote. What is more, is that several poll workers, many of whom are teachers in their local communities, fell ill and several election officials have even lost their lives to the disease, reminding of the seriousness of the threat of the pandemic. Since then, reported new infections have stabilized and a big new wave, as some had feared, seems to have been avoided.
Under STEP Democracy IDEA not only provided pertinent timely technical advice to the UEC in its planning for the elections during COVID-19, but also provided preventive materials enabling adequate security on E-day and contributed to unprecedented levels of voter information. The elections took place as scheduled and voter turnout was estimated by the UEC to have been over 70%. This has allowed for a timely exercise of electoral rights and a key step in the democratic process. In early 2021, a new parliament can take on the important task of forming a new Government and furthering the democratic transition and the economic development of the country. One of its first priorities will be to overcome the COVID-19 crisis and to alleviate its socio-economic impacts.