Max Grömping analyses the challenges to electoral integrity in Singapore and Myanmar.
Two Southeast Asian countries went to the polls in 2015 – both after years of authoritarian rule and amid hopes for some degree of democratic change. Yet in other respects, conditions could not have been more different.
Comparing elections in Southeast Asia’s third-poorest country, Myanmar, with the world’s third-richest, Singapore, tells us several things about electoral integrity. First, election results are not to be conflated with questions of election integrity. Second, when the venture is simultaneously undermined by a less than level playing field, an efficient electoral administration and logistical sophistication only go so far in organising elections with integrity. Third, even when electoral stakeholders have the best of intentions and are willing to play fair, structural constraints may pose formidable obstacles to election integrity.
Hopes ran high when citizens of Myanmar and Singapore cast their ballots in 2015. In Singapore, tough competition and at least a respectable result for opposition parties was expected. The surprising 2011 election results were still in memory. Combined with recent dissatisfaction over major ruling party policies, and growing cross-cutting social cleavages, some even hoped for the advent of multi-party politics.
Of course, no one doubted that the People’s Action Party (PAP) would remain victorious. After all, the hegemonic electoral authoritarian ‘Singapore model’ is based on single-party rule by an entrenched elite, rhetoric of government effectiveness and ‘meritocracy’, the ubiquitous influence of personal power networks, and economic favouritism of cronies. But when the snap election was called for 11 September 2015 a sense of change was in the air.
Expectations for the 8 November 2015 in Myanmar were even higher. As quasi ‘founding’ elections, much hinged on the outcome and the public acceptance of the polls. The country’s transition and opening after nearly half a century of direct military rule had raised hopes for more participatory forms of government. The release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house confinement in 2010 and her election to parliament in 2012 changed the political status quo in Myanmar.
Optimism about further change was tightly linked to the electoral outcome of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). International diplomatic and news attention soared in the lead-up to the election and had been consistent for a long period prior. International assistance providers and watchdog groups – such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Democracy Reporting International (DRI), the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), or the National Democratic Institute (NDI), to name just a few – had started to engage with the electoral authorities and civil society actors months if not years before.
In the end, the election outcomes surpassed the hopes of optimists in Myanmar, while utterly frustrating those in Singapore. The PAP secured a sweeping victory, winning 83 out of a total of 89 seats in the country’s legislature. Of the eight opposition political parties, only the Workers Party (WP) was able to obtain six seats in parliament. This stood in stark contrast to the 2011 polls – where PAP gained only 60 per cent of the vote, its lowest percentage of support in history. The 2015 result hence reinstated the half century dominance of the PAP in Singaporean politics, despite opposition parties contesting every parliamentary seat for the first time since independence in 1965.
In contrast, the election outcome in Myanmar left commentators hard pressed to think of a moment when the country’s prospects ever looked this good. In a landslide, the NLD won 348 of the 664 seats in the two houses of parliament, surpassing the two-thirds of seats needed for a majority (the constitution guarantees one quarter of all seats to army’s nominees). Voter turnout was highwith almost 70 per cent of registered voters casting their ballots. Given that for many — not only in the country’s Burmese heartland, but also in its ethnic minority border regions – the polls were a referendum on the decades of authoritarian rule, the result exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Buddhist nationalism – flaming sectarian strife in the country — did not resonate hugely with NLD supporters who instead picked up on Suu Kyi’s promise of change and her chastisement of military rule. Ethnic-based parties performed poorly in most constituencies, with the exception of Shan and Rakhine states. Instead, ethnic voters also flocked to the NLD who enters parliament with a strong sense of a mandate to also represent ethnic minority interests. Overall, the election was considered a big success.
Elections with integrity?
But the election results themselves were only one part of the story. Did the contests adhere to international norms and standards of the conduct of elections? Election outcomes may be the result of genuine competition over policies or personalities, or they may be distorted by procedural, legal, or financial manipulations. Furthermore, elections may fail simply due to lack of funds and staff, infrastructural incapacities, or other logistical issues. The broader picture in the region is one of democratic contraction, and Southeast Asian elections have been remarked upon as being the worst in the world. It is hence of great interest how the Singaporean and the Myanmar polls performed in terms of electoral integrity.
The report ‘The Year in Elections 2015’ – recently released by the Electoral Integrity Project based at the University of Sydney and Harvard University — gives some insight into these issues. It compares the risks of flawed and failed elections, and how far countries around the world meet international standards.
Based on responses from more than 2000 election experts, the report evaluates the integrity of all 180 national parliamentary and presidential contests held between 1 July 2012 and 31 December 2015 in 139 countries worldwide, including 54 national elections held in 2015. Responses were collected for 49 indicators in 11 sub-dimensions of electoral integrity along the whole electoral cycle. These were then aggregated to a 100-point Index of ‘Perceptions of Electoral Integrity’ (PEI).
Stunningly, the overall PEI Index for both countries is almost identical. Singapore scored 53 out of 100, and Myanmar achieved a 54 – while the global mean over all 180 elections was 56. This means that in comparison to other recent contests – especially in the region – Singapore and Myanmar both held moderately fair elections. It is more than striking that the electoral experiment in Myanmar scored just as well as the polls in the affluent city state with decades of experience in running elections – even when taking into account the history of electoral authoritarianism in Singapore. The logistical task of organising an election in a conflict-ridden and poor country of more than 50 million and lacking infrastructure is baffling.
Taking a closer look at the sub-dimensions of the PEI Index reveals in more detail where Singapore failed, and where structural constraints may continue to hamper Myanmar.
Singapore’s PEI Index of 53 is far lower than any other country of comparable socio-economic development. Technical and administrative aspects of the elections worked well as expected, highlighted by above-average scores in the dimensions of electoral procedures (Singapore: 76; global mean: 66), or even more so voter registration (Singapore: 77; global mean: 51). Campaign finance was seen as being on par with the global average, reflecting the strict enforcement of existing political finance regulation, as well as the fact that the PAP as a ‘cadre party’ is relatively autonomous from private business interests, and intraparty competition is not commercialized.
But aspects pertaining to a level playing field were evaluated far less positively. The country’s electoral laws were seen as highly skewed in favour of the governing party and restricting citizens’ rights (Singapore: 27; global mean: 54). The most negative assessment regarded the delimitation of voting district boundaries (Singapore: 14; global mean: 53). Only two countries – the United States and Malaysia – scored worse in this dimension.
Singapore fared very poorly on survey items such as “boundaries discriminated against some parties”, or “boundaries favoured incumbents”. The country’s large multi-member districts deter electoral competition and increase the likelihood of super-majorities in the gerrymandered districts, leading to a large number of essentially uncontested seats.
No stone was left unturned in the attempt to gain strategic advantages. This included the very timing of elections, making use of surging patriotism in the wake of founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s death. Lee, who transformed the island into an economic powerhouse during his ruling, died in March 2015.
His death sparked strong national pride among Singaporeans, as did the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the city-state’s independence in August 2015. The timing for a snap election was ideal to re-capture the ‘Singapore Story’ and make use of patriotic feelings. Indeed, the timing of elections has been a strategy of choice employed by the PAP for decades. The 2015 election had only a stunning nine days of political campaigning — the shortest period legally allowed by the election department.
Almost no independent scrutiny was placed on the electoral process. In one of the few exceptions, Singaporean NGO Maruah commented on the lack of transparency on factors influencing electoral boundaries, and reiterated the strong call for an Independent Elections Commission.
Myanmar’s PEI Index of 54 on the other hand compares very favourably with countries of similar socioeconomic development, long histories of intrastate war and authoritarian rule, and limited experience of election administration. The election marked the first time that outside foreign observers were allowedto monitor election campaigns, voting and the dispute resolution process.
While Singapore put election watchdogs on a leash, more than 11,000 domestic and 1,000 international observers were allowed to operate relatively unhindered in Myanmar. Numerous international organisations assessed the election positively. The EU preliminary statement remarked that “observers reported very positively on the voting process in polling stations, with 95 per cent rating the process as ‘good’ or ‘very good’”. The PEI experts also saw Myanmar performing well (above the global average) in regards to procedures, voter registration, counting and results. Given the relative novelty of administering multi-party competitive elections, the favourable assessment of the electoral authorities (Myanmar: 69, global mean: 61) came as a positive surprise.
Myanmar’s problems were elsewhere. International observers had concerns about the abuses against Rohingya Muslims, according to Amnesty International one of the most persecuted people in the world. The Carter Center commented on the Candidate Scrutiny Process, noting that “five of the six political parties fielding mostly Muslim candidates, including those representing Rohingya and Kaman, lost more than half of their candidates, and at least two Muslim independent candidates were disqualified”.
During election campaigns, the UN warned of widespread intimidations by authorities, as dozens of candidates were disqualified from running, and ballots and names on electoral rolls were reported missing. Other issues raised were the disenfranchisement of some 760,000 holders of temporary registration certificates, so-called “white cards”.
The domestic NGO People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) voiced concern about the electoral legal framework, particularly the 25 per cent reserved seats for the military. The PEI experts also picked up this problem; electoral laws scored lower than average (Myanmar: 43; global mean: 54). Furthermore, voter registration was singled out as particularly problematic, with the election ranking in the lowest quartile in the global comparison of this sub-dimension (Myanmar: 30; global mean: 51).
Despite technological solutions being used to create the electoral roll, doubts about its completeness persisted. The PEI experts concurred by giving an average response of 4.2 and 3.9 (out of 5) respectively on the survey items “5-1 Some citizens were not listed in the register” and “4-2 The electoral register was inaccurate)”.
Lessons to be learnt?
In sum, comparing challenges to electoral integrity in Singapore and Myanmar highlights the many different reasons for which elections can go wrong or right. Overall, the two cases confirm other findings, that, contrary to classical modernisation theory, there is little evidence that wealth and poverty are correlated with levels of electoral integrity.
Singapore’s electoral bureaucracy is superbly equipped to deliver a highly efficient electoral process with flawless voter registration. But the integrity of the elections is undermined by a skewed legal framework, problematic voting districts boundaries, and a lack of independent scrutiny.
Given the poor performance of its electoral institutions and the simultaneous erosion of the authoritarian developmental state’s ‘growth with equity’ social compact, Singapore is faced with new problems of legitimation. While a ‘silent majority’ wants the PAP in power, an electorate with a high demand for effective policy and economic growth present challenges for both the ruling party and opposition. The country relies on its goods and services from overseas. Singaporeans worry about being able to retire and are struggling with wages that have been devalued with the high cost of living as well as a rising population triggered by immigration which has pushed the island’s populationup by over a million people since 2006 to a total of 5.4 million.
Contrary to that, elections in Myanmar will likely continue to struggle with structural constraints affecting the electoral roll and the ability to deliver elections in war-torn regions with little infrastructure. The 2015 election was widely hailed by commentators as a leap forward in the democratisation process. With the NLD’s majority, reforms may ensue, providing space for more societal participation.
But elections have also been characterized as a deliberate survival strategy of the highly professionalised military complex, seeking to institutionalise some mechanisms of power sharing among the ruling elite. While the elections were a successful test for newly built institutions, the country’s transition is certainly impeded by the persistent power of the military, state-facilitated crony capitalism, and increasing sectarian divisions. Simultaneously, ongoing fighting in some ethnic states will likely continue to present formidable challenges for some time.
Max Grömping is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His thesis examines the drivers of news media attention to domestic election monitoring organizations around the world. Prior to this, he lectured at Thammasat University, Thailand.
 In comparison, the 2015 legislative election in Indonesia (PEI Index of 53), and the annulled 2014 polls in Thailand (PEI: 51) were roughly similar to Myanmar and Singapore in terms of electoral integrity. The 2013 polls in the Philippines were evaluated as ‘flawed (PEI Index of 48), while contests in 2013 in Malaysia (PEI: 36), and Cambodia (PEI: 32) were considered as ‘failed’.