Myanmar sets date for election that may define scope of reform

YANGON: Myanmar will hold a general election on Nov. 8, its election commission said on Wednesday, its first nationwide ballot since the end of direct military rule and a vote that could decide the scope of the country's reforms.

The election comes at a critical time for Myanmar, which has undergone major changes since shifting to a quasi-civilian system in 2011 but is now seeing tensions between rival forces vying for power after an unprecedented period of reform.

The ballot will determine representatives of the bicameral parliament and regional chambers for five-year terms. The newly formed upper and lower houses will nominate and vote on who will be president later.

The Nov. 8 date was confirmed by Nyunt Tin, a director of the Union Election Commission (UEC), when contacted by Reuters.

The last election in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, was held under military rule in 2010. It was widely condemned as rigged to favour the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which includes retired military and remnants of the previous regime.

The November vote is expected to be watched by Western observers. A minister said in March the European Union and U.S.-based Carter Centre would be invited as monitors.

The 2010 poll was boycotted by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest at the time.

The NLD won the last free and fair election in 1990 by a huge margin but the result was ignored by a junta then ruling. The NLD is expected to do well this time, if it chooses to run.

The party has a history of boycotting processes inspired by the military and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi said recently the NLD would assess whether the conditions were right to run. She has also expressed concern about unrest affecting the vote, without specifying the nature of the threat.

NLD officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

The United States, which has backed reforms in Myanmar, welcomed the announcement of the election date, with State Department spokesman Mark Toner adding: "We think that a credible parliamentary election will serve as an important step in Burma's democratic transition."

Toner told a news briefing the United States was providing support to the Union Election Commission, some political parties, civil society groups and others "to ensure that they are able to conduct inclusive and transparent elections."

He said civil society organizations were expected to field more than 5,000 election observers.

Parties including the NLD have already complained about inaccuracies in provisional voter lists. The UEC has asked for all discrepancies to be reported.

Regardless of the election outcome, the military is guaranteed a quarter of seats in parliament, in accordance with the constitution it drafted in 2008. That charter has a clause that prevents Suu Kyi from being president due to the foreign citizenship of her children.

That quota is ostensibly a veto that means even if the NLD should win a parliamentary majority, the armed forces could stifle moves to change a political system the West says falls far short of being democratic.