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Myanmar vote promises to be a challenging lesson in democracy

Delima Saraghi leads a training class on campaigning to female candidates in Rangoon.

Htoo Tay Zar/The Globe and Mail

Delima Saraghi stands at the front of a Rangoon hotel conference room and looks over the women gathered to learn how to run an election in Myanmar.

"I want to remind you again of your goal in a campaign – why you even enter the election, why you even want to be a candidate. Which is to …?"

She bends her ear toward the members of 41 political parties who have come from across the country, some riding buses for nearly a day, to prepare for an election expected by early November; it will be a pivotal moment in the development of a nascent democracy.

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When no one answers her question, she does it herself. "To win!" she says. To emphasize the point, she scribbles "Win" in big letters on a flip chart.

Then she sketches how that's done: research, fundraising, outreach and a vote-counting plan. Use census data, use voter records, says Ms. Saraghi, a trainer with the International Republican Institute, a United Nations-partnered organization that is utilizing hundreds of such seminars to teach the basics of running a political campaign in the country formerly known as Burma

As it faces the first broadly contested ballot since 1990 – an election whose results were then tossed out by the army – Myanmar's military-heavy government has promised to run a proper vote.

But nothing will be easy. And even before the election is called, questions are already emerging over whether the country's leadership has either the will or the wherewithal to mount an election that will stand up to intense scrutiny. Since recent political reforms, this will be the first general election to be contested by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.

The problems run far deeper than campaign strategy.

The country faces immense practical concerns over running an election at 47,000 polling stations across a Texas-sized country where electricity remains sparse and some villages are accessible only by foot. (By comparison, the United States had fewer than 120,000 polling places in the last federal election.) There is no way international observers in Myanmar can be in all of those places; it will be a sufficiently daunting challenge merely to train local teachers and civil servants to run each of them. There will be 10 people running each polling station, meaning nearly 1 per cent of the population will need training that has yet to begin.

Already, observers worry that some minority groups will be barred from voting, and funding issues have begun to arise. Myanmar hasn't earmarked enough money to affix numbered seals to ballot boxes, or to buy the proper indelible ink to mark the fingers of those who have voted. (It has budgeted $136,000 – the actual cost is upwards of $2-million.)

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To those watching, it's already clear this will be far from a perfect election.

"They've made enormous progress given where they started. But both technically and in terms of their institutional independence, they still have a long way to go – and less and less time all the time," said Richard Nuccio, resident senior country director for the National Democratic Institute.

Stephen Cima, who leads Myanmar operations for the International Republican Institute, adds: "It's not this watershed moment that's going to bring democracy."

Myanmar was until recently ruled by a military dictatorship that jailed people for penning democracy poems and singing anti-military songs. The military remains in control, with 25 per cent of legislature seats occupied by uniformed officers, and the ruling party made up largely of ex-army figures.

What may be more surprising is the cautious hope beginning to emerge. Ms. Suu Kyi herself has said she expects the election to be free – if not fair, given the military's priority role in the constitution.

Indeed, the government has shown signs of wanting to do things right.

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In Rangoon, minivans are already driving slow loops with megaphones blaring instructions on how to look up draft voter's lists. "If your name is not there, you can complain," the recorded message says.

In the 2010 elections, voters' lists were assembled from handwritten township records. Now, they're being digitized – some 30 million entries in all, an effort that is half-way done.

Then there are the candidates themselves, people like 33-year-old Lwe Nan Moe, the daughter of a local leader from northern Shan state, one of the country's most remote and violent regions. In some of the villages near where she grew up, only one out of 100 people has graduated high school. Some in the older generation do not how to wield a ballpoint pen to make a check mark on paper.

But starting early this year, Lwe Nan Moe began to go village to village to teach the basics of voting.

Her enthusiasm is partially tempered by worry, because her village is often surrounded by fighting that could easily mar vote-casting.

But, nonetheless, she sees in democracy an avenue for change. Under the incumbent MP, who is Lwe Nan Moe's father, the government has provided new teachers and nurses to some local villages. She tells people "if you want more and better than this, you have to vote for our party."

And she sees in democracy other potential, too – including a platform for a woman to gain power, and alter values. "In our ethnic group, people think men are very important, that men are the same as a god," she said. "So I want to change their stupid mind."

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