Posted in Legislative Research on Aug 06, 2020
“No Vote” is the new hot topic being discussed and debated on social media . The backlash has been equally vocal. Some are concerned about the impact of low voter turnout in the coming November election on the many reforms necessary to secure Myanmar’s transition to democracy. Others have claimed that not voting is a threat to democracy itself. However, it is important to be patient and to show empathy to those who feel they cannot vote in November, and ensure that arguments against the ‘no vote’ campaign do not spill over into hostility or threats.
If democracy is understood purely as the process of voting, a truer essence of democracy may be lost. Political participation and human rights go far beyond the simple act of voting. Many people, around the world, have campaigned and taken to the streets to fight for human rights and democracy, in places that claim to have elections and ‘democracy’, because their voice is marginalised, and their human rights are curtailed. We must strive for democratic values that transcend majority rule through voting and ensure we are governed in ways that protect human rights for all, especially minority groups who cannot ever hope to take power in an election.
Does voter turnout affect the legitimacy of an election?
When the elections are evaluated, many measures are applied by observers to gauge the freedom and fairness of the election, according to enforcement of electoral laws and regulations.
Voter turnout is another factor observers often look at, to measure the legitimacy of the ruling party. However, this measure alone does not determine the legitimacy of a government, especially in emergent democracies such as Myanmar, because many other factors determine who votes other than those who chose not to.
Low voter turnout is not only a result of the citizens choosing not to vote. For example, incomplete voterlists, the lack of a verification card, conflict and security concerns closing down polling stations – these are all factors that deny people their right to vote.
Is not voting a right?
Ahead of the 2020 general election, the claim “Not voting is a right” is widespread on social media and this is causing some anxiety about declining voter turnout. Some perceive those who choose not to vote as enemies of democracy.
In a democracy, it is guaranteed in law that those above a certain age have the right to vote in the election, and in most democracies, including Myanmar, the right not to vote – to abstain – is also protected. Interestingly, some countries like India have inserted an alternative option of ‘none of the above’ on the ballot for those who dislike all parties or candidates. Known as the “right to reject”, it is enshrined in the election laws of those countries. If the number of people choosing this option surpasses a certain threshold, the election can be re-held. This is one way to protect, within a democratic system, the natural right of the people to reject all of the candidates put before them.
Myanmar’s elections in the aftermath of the authoritarian era
Since the 2010 general election, held under the 2008 Constitution drafted by the junta, there have been two general elections and three by-elections. The following table shows the turnout percentage:
Figure: Previous elections and actual voters as a percentage of eligible voters on voter lists – ‘turnout’. (Note that these figures would likely be far lower if all Myanmar population over 18, including ineligible voters and those denied citizenship, was used as the denominator.)
In reviewing these figures, we can see that whilst previously turnout was high (around 70%), there has been a notable decline, with a near halving of the turnout in the by-elections of 2017 and 2018. However, for a number of reasons, we should be cautious in drawing too many conclusions from these data:
- Many have called into question the accuracy of the data collected during the 2010 election. This was Myanmar’s first election since 1990, held in climate of continued repression by the military, where fear may have compelled many to vote.
- The 2012 by-election was the first to be contested by the NLD under the 2008 constitution, which undoubtedly drew a great deal of public attention and interest in voting.
- 2015 was the first general election to be contested by the NLD and is seen by many as the first legitimate election in Myanmar in decades. Again, public engagement in this process was high and drove a strong level of voter turnout, boosted by a ‘Go Vote’ campaign and the active role of Myanmar CSOs in providing voter education, supported by a new influx of international donor funding to support democratic reform.
- Without the unique interest that the 2012 by-election held due to Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s re-entry into formal politics, the by-elections of 2017 and 2018 likely lacked the excitement of earlier polls.
Reasons for high voter turnout
There are many factors affecting voter turnout, but three main reasons will be outlined here. They are the performance of the government, the role of a free and active news media, and the role of civil society organisations (CSOs).
Performance of the government
Democracy requires two or more parties to contest an election, and in their campaigns every party makes its case for why it deserves the opportunity to form a government. They seek to persuade the voters by making promises, or pledges, about what they will do if they gain power, typically in a manifesto. Citizens will be generally enthusiastic to vote if they believe that these promises are credible and achievable, and in line with their personal political stand, leading to high voter turnout. On the other hand, if pledges are too vague, unachievable, and not backed up by past performance, voter apathy can creep in and fewer people will come out to vote. It is not the politician’s role to bully people into voting by telling them they are irresponsible if they do not vote, but to convince them to vote through making, and keeping, credible electoral promises.
Free and active news media
There is a famous quote that I can live where no government but not where no news media. It is a quote which tries to express how important an independent and free news media is in a democracy. News media informs voters with data on political parties and electoral candidates not only during the election but also at other times, and in this way they can inspire voters to consider, discuss and debate politics, determining whether they will go out to vote. Data about the current government’s performance is essential, and criticism of the government’s performance is a cornerstone of democracy that must not be curtailed. The capabilities and qualifications of electoral candidates can be scrutinized by citizens, who can compare and contrast their options.
The role of civil society
Civil society plays an important role in monitoring governments and markets, to protect marginalised groups and victims of discrimination and exploitation. The inclusion of civil society in legislative and executive processes allows citizens to participate broadly. They also provide voter education, release data on parties and electoral candidates, and play a vital role as independent monitors of the election itself.
Why is “No Vote” so loud?
The No Vote campaign first appeared backed by a few individuals on social media, and later became a group. Why is the “No Vote” campaign gaining so much attention? Many factors may be at play, including dissatisfaction with the 5-year performance of the current government and the lack of progress on their pledges to “amend the Constitution, Peace and Rule of law”, as well as a general distaste for the current political situation. There may be scepticism that under the current constitution that voting will make any difference – given the dominance of the Tatmadaw in all spheres of public life (Indeed, this is the very reason the NLD themselves boycotted the 2010 election.) Some people may even be thinking to vote tactically, believing that a lower turnout in their constituency will increase the share of votes for their preferred party.
Treating those pushing the “No Vote” message as enemies of democracy is not the solution. If the aim is to increase voter turnout, there are many positive things that can be done rather than criticising those who wish to use their legally protected right to abstain. The performance of the government and Hluttaw must be improved, to show direct evidence of what your vote means; information must be provided to people through a strong and independent news media, free to criticise and examine the government and political parties without intimidation; and civil society must be supported and engaged effectively to mobilise the electorate.
Your vote matters. But in the electoral campaign, it is up to the political parties to understand the real hopes of the voters, to make plausible and deliverable pledges to change the political, economic and social situation, and, most importantly, to keep their promises.
By Hla Myo Kyaw
(This article is updated on 18 August 2020.)