Those Shadowy Advance Votes
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, June 16, 2024


Those Shadowy Advance Votes


A man looks at election material posted outside a polling station in central Rangoon on Nov. 7, when the people of Burma voted in the country’s first election in 20 years. ( Photo: REUTERS)

Shadaw is not the sort of place that normally attracts much attention. Nestled in a remote corner of Burma’s landlocked and sparsely populated Karenni State, it is described by those who know it as scenic but otherwise unremarkable. The few thousand people who live there are mostly ethnic Karenni subsistence farmers who rarely have occasion to welcome visitors.

On Nov. 7, however, Shadaw became a place of real distinction. In an election that claimed a 77 percent national turnout, Shadaw stands out as the only constituency where every single eligible voter cast ballots for all five seats representing the area in the upper and lower houses of the national legislature and in the state assembly.

Election officials work at a votecounting center in Rangoon on Nov. 7. (Photo: REUTERS)
What makes this display of voter enthusiasm all the more remarkable is the fact that only two parties ran in Shadaw, both of them pro-military. Apart from the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the only other choice was the National Unity Party (NUP), the regime’s proxy party in Burma’s last election in 1990.

In itself, this paucity of options was not unusual. Apart from the USDP and the NUP, which fielded 1,112 and 995 candidates respectively, the remaining 35 parties mustered a mere 880 candidates between them. Even if none of these candidates and the 82 independents who joined the race ran in the same constituencies, that would leave at least 16 percent of the 1,154 seats up for grabs without any non-military candidates. However, since many non-military candidates did compete against each other, the number of two-way contests between the USDP and NUP was actually more like a fifth to a quarter of the total.   

But why, given the fact that Shadaw was hardly a hotly contested constituency, did so many of its residents clamor to cast a vote?

It seems unlikely that the perfect turnout was intended as an overwhelming show of support for the ruling regime’s political agenda. After all, this is a state with an active insurgency, where decades of conflict between government forces and Karenni rebels have taken an enormous toll on the local population, chiefly as a result of the Burmese military’s “Four Cuts” strategy aimed at stemming support for insurgents. Even if they are not directly in the firing line, the people of Shadaw would undoubtedly be aware of the ruling regime’s widespread practice of forced relocation of entire villages and attacks on civilians suspected of sympathizing with those calling for greater ethnic autonomy.

Perhaps, however, clamor is not quite the right word to describe the situation in Shadaw on election day. A closer look at the results published by the state-run New Light of Myanmar shows that polling on Nov. 7 was actually a rather quiet affair, with only 69 out of 1,821 eligible voters showing up to cast their ballots for their member of the People’s Parliament, or lower house of the national legislature, and similarly low numbers coming out to choose their other representatives in the upper house and regional assembly.

So how did Shadaw achieve a 100 percent turnout, when the percentage of voters who actually bothered to go to the polling stations was in the low single digits? The answer, in two words that have been repeated often since the election, is: advance votes.

Throughout the country, advance votes played a key role in determining the outcome of contests that were much closer than those in Shadaw, where the USDP garnered more than 90 percent of the  votes. According to research by The Irrawaddy, there were at least 60 confirmed cases of candidates losing overnight after advance votes were added to the total, despite having a clear lead as election day counting neared completion. In almost every case, the final outcome favored the USDP.

Although this is not proof that the vote in Shadaw was rigged, the fact that it fits a pattern witnessed in many other parts of the country certainly suggests that something was amiss. However, since the regime’s handpicked Union Election Commission (EC) has effectively barred any possibility of an investigation into alleged irregularities (by threatening those making “false accusations” with heavy fines and prison sentences), it is unlikely that we will ever know what really went on in Shadaw on Nov. 7.

In other remote constituencies, there are similar signs of manipulation that may never be fully exposed.

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