YANGON, Myanmar (MindaNews/13 November) — A top official of poll watchdog National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) has cautioned Myanmar against going the way of the Philippines in improving its vote counting process, which is currently done manually.
“I don’t recommend the PCOS (Precinct Count Optical Scan) here,” said Damaso Magbual, a senior member of the Namfrel council who also chairs the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel).
The PCOS has been used for precinct-level vote counts in the Philippines since 2010. Its results are then transmitted electronically to machines for canvassing votes at the municipal, city and provincial levels, and on to the central server of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).
While the automated count hastened the electoral process, technical issues have been raised against its integrity. Election watchdogs have wanted a technical audit on the program used to run the PCOS machines.
“A machine is as good as how we want to use it. Let technology be used properly,” Magbual counseled.
“You need to ensure that the necessary safeguards are there before embarking on automation. In the case of the Philippines, these were not done. In fact, the suggestions for safeguards were simply discarded,” he lamented.
Magbual was asked for recommendations on how to speed up the vote counting in Myanmar.
Three days after the historic Nov. 8 polls, tension began building up over the slow trickling in of official results which are gathered from the polling station to the township and then to the district before these are confirmed by the Union Election Commission (UEC).
The main opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, has accused the UEC of deliberately slowing the confirmation of results.
But the tension has since dissipated after top officials of the Myanmar military expressed assurance it will honor the result of the polls. Top officials of the NLD’s main rival, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), also conceded defeat.
Magbual said the UEC must be given the benefit of the doubt at this time given that it has to work with a challenging communications infrastructure.
He told political parties to remain vigilant and to optimize the use of their respective poll watchdogs at every step of the vote aggregation process.
As of Friday morning, the UEC has confirmed 967 of the 1,171 up for grabs in Sunday’s polls. Of these, 281 were for Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) seats, 133 for Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House), and 536 for state and regional parliaments.
A rundown of the official results compiled by Yangon-based newspaper Myanmar Times showed the NLD capturing most of the seats: 217 in the Lower House, 110 in the Upper House, and 401 in the state and regional parliaments.
While pointing to incidents of irregularities, Asian and European monitors generally gave a thumbs-up for the “well-organized” conduct of Sunday’s general elections in Myanmar.
The monitors principally cited marked improvements in the way the elections were held in 2010, when a military junta ruled the country prior to the current nominally civilian government.
“The poll was well-organized and voters had a real choice between different candidates,” Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), said in a press conference on Tuesday.
“The country has come a long way to holding genuine and free elections,” added Lambsdorff, comparing Sunday’s exercise to that in 2010.
In the current elections, around 90 parties competed for seats in the national and regional parliaments whereas in 2010, only around 40 did, minus major parties like the NLD which won a majority in 1990 but was not allowed by the military to form the government.
EU parliament member Ana Gomes said she was “impressed by the calm and peaceful atmosphere” throughout the balloting from 6am to 4pm.
“We welcome the fact that a high number of voters, especially young people, turn out to vote,” Gomes added.
Anfrel said that through Sunday’s polls, the people of Myanmar “have sent the world a message that (they) are ready and willing to work towards a more democratic future.”
“Democratization is a process and the 2015 elections will provide a solid foundation for that process,” the group said in a statement.
An estimated 80 percent of some 30 million voters trooped to more than 40,000 polling stations on Nov. 8 in the country’s first election in 25 years under increased democratic circumstances.
Up for grabs were 498 of 664 seats in the bicameral national legislature, 644 of 860 seats in regional and state parliaments, and 29 Ethnic Affairs Ministers in states and regions with substantial ethnic minorities.
No incident of violence was reported during the day of the elections.
Anfrel lauded the Union Election Commission (UEC) “for its management of the election in what was admittedly an often difficult environment.”
“The efforts of polling station staff to create an environment conducive to free and fair election is worth noting. Given the decades since the last competitive national elections, the UEC generally performed admirably to manage the process,” Anfrel said.
It added the “most significant shortcoming” of Sunday’s political exercise was that a “large number of potential voters…were excluded or unable to participate in the process.”
It was mainly referring to the Muslims (called Rohingyas) in Rakhine State, towards the border with Bangladesh.
“The UEC has told us the issue with the Rohingyas is about citizenship,” Magbual explained.
“In the spirit of democratic inclusiveness and long-term peace in the country, steps can and should be taken to include all the people of Myanmar, no matter their race or religion or where they happen to live…,” Anfrel pointed out.
Lambsdorff said the Rohingya question “is an issue for Myanmar to address, far beyond the elections.”
“It is a social issue that is just reflected in the context of the elections,” he added.
Both the EU observation mission and the Anfrel pointed to potential fraud in the voting in military barracks for soldiers and police to which monitors were barred.
The EU observation mission lamented that “despite prior assurances,” its monitors were not given access to the advance voting exercise in military camps.
Advance voting has been allowed, especially for military and police who may not be able to come to their designated polling centers on Election Day because of a mandated duty to perform.
“… The special privileges enjoyed by these institutions create opportunities for fraud and electoral misconduct…,” Anfrel noted.
During Sunday’s polls, journalists and the elderly were also given advance voting privilege.
In the past, advance votes were used as instrument to tilt the balance of the balloting results in favor of the ruling party, Magbual said.
[This article originally appeared in Mindanews. It was written by Ryan Rosauro while on fieldwork for the 2015 Fellowship.]