YANGON: On Sunday (Nov 8), voters head to polling stations across Myanmar to take part in a general election that is being held in the middle of a pandemic, with a daily average of 1,000 new COVID-19 cases.
Polling stations - around 50,000 of them - open at 6am in Myanmar, and by the time they close 10 hours later at 4pm, up to 37 million registered voters, in a country of 54 million people, would have cast their ballot.
A two-month campaign period, which had been filled with challenges posed by the pandemic, wrapped up officially at the end of Friday.
Lockdowns were imposed in badly hit areas like Yangon and Rakhine, curtailing campaigning by political parties, unable to hold physical walkabouts and rallies in many areas.
But people have been encouraged to leave their homes on Sunday to vote. Masks are compulsory and contact is minimised by having voters place documents in clear plastic folders before handing them over to officials for inspection.
Provisions have also been made for COVID-19 patients, even while in isolation. They are required to wear N95 masks and gloves while voting and officials attending to them will be decked out in full personal protective equipment.
VOTING PROTOCOLS AMID A PANDEMIC
Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) said in early August it would set up voting protocols taking into account COVID-19 restrictions, by taking lessons from countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
A month ahead of the general election, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said officials would plan at least three dry runs to pre-empt further problems on polling day.
The authorities also increased the number of polling stations to 50,000, up from 40,000 in 2015. Newly set-up polling stations would have to be of a minimum size, with enough air circulation.
Voters would also be split into shifts, and each polling station would have a maximum of 1,000 people.
Leading up to the election, Myanmar had been buying COVID-19 medical equipment from China. Daily multiple flights carrying supplies such as masks, protective suits, boots and gloves had been landing in Myanmar in recent weeks.
In late-October, the election commission planned advance balloting for voters above 60 over the course of a week, in a bid to protect this vulnerable group and to ease overcrowding on polling day.
Mobile teams also went around the country that week, to allow those who were too weak to vote at polling stations to cast their ballot from home.
Many elderly voters CNA spoke to during this period of advance voting said they were grateful for such arrangements.
But some pointed out shortcomings.
77-year-old Hla Myint Maung told CNA: "The envelopes used to store ballot papers are not good. The glue doesn’t stick. I think that’s going to cause problems."
Local media also reported similar flaws that surfaced during the advance voting.
The Myanmar Times quoted Yangon Region Election Commission member Kyaw Moe Kyi, who said the poor quality paper used for the envelopes had resulted in them not sticking or being torn.
But Mr Kyaw Moe Kyi said under election rules, ballot papers are not voided even if the envelopes are torn.
There were also concerns of voters using unauthorised seals.
Voters pick the party of their choice by using UEC-issued seals to stamp on the ballot paper.
But during the advance voting period, UEC noted a rise in cases of voters using unauthorised seals – which would render a vote invalid.
One of the cases involved a political candidate who had allegedly given an unauthorised seal to election officials.
UEC has since asked polling station staff to ensure its seals are not removed from voting booths, and has reminded voters to check the authenticity of the seals before using them.
AFTER THE ELECTION
With Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party widely predicted to pick up another win, following its 2015 victory, attention is already turning to what happens after Sunday.
Aung San Suu Kyi has already made known one of her priorities for the next five years if, as expected, voters give Myanmar's leader and her party another mandate.
She will attempt, not the first time, to change the country’s military-written 2008 constitution, especially the part guaranteeing the military 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, which gives it veto power.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempt to change the charter during her term in office failed.
NLD’s information committee secretary Monywa Aung Shin told CNA the 2008 constitution was "an extremely rigid one".
"It was written in a way that was not meant to be easily amended," Mr Monywa Aung Shin said.
"But we will try again since we promised this to the people. We may not have succeeded at first, but we will keep trying," he said.
Another key aspect Myanmar has to work on is its economy, which has been battered by COVID-19.
Dr Sean Turnell, Special Economic Consultant to the State Counsellor, said it would take Myanmar 10 years for its economy to realise its full potential.
He said if the government were re-elected, economic reforms it had made in the first term would be further advanced in its next five-year term.
Dr Turnell said Myanmar’s economic growth was at 6.8 per cent pre-COVID.
"Post-COVID, post-election, what we would be hoping for is that various reforms to infrastructure deregulation, and then hopefully, a reopening of Myanmar's economy to the region and the world could push the economic growth rates up to 7 per cent," he said.
Externally, Sunday's election will be also closely watched by the world, particularly by other fellow members of ASEAN.
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak’s Myanmar Studies Programme fellow and co-coordinator Moe Thuzar said ASEAN has been following Myanmar’s democratisation journey closely.
"It has been supportive of Myanmar's more active participation in ASEAN. As such, ASEAN has worked with successive administrations in Myanmar, and will continue to do so," she said.
"A possible second NLD administration would bring a continuity of this two-way interaction."