Observations on the Municipal Elections

By The Irrawaddy 6 April 2019

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the Yangon municipal election held recently. Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, executive director of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), and election candidate Ko Aung Khant join me now to discuss this. I am The Irrawaddy Burmese editor, Ye Ni.

Ko Sai, as you are from the election monitoring group, I’d like you to discuss the municipal election. As far as I know, it was held at a cost of 2 billion kyats to elect candidates for 105 positions—six in the executive body and 99 at township level. I heard that the voter turnout was just 10 percent of eligible voters. What is your assessment of the cost and effectiveness of the election?

Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint: We still don’t know the latest data, but according to our data [collected on] the morning of the election day, only around 10 percent of voters cast a ballot. We immediately posted it on social media and informed news agencies with the intention of urging them to mobilize voters to cast votes in the evening. We are still waiting for the data of the election commission to find out what percentage of the voters cast their votes in the evening. But we guess the voter turnout will not be more than 10 or 15 percent. You asked if the election is worthwhile in terms of its financial cost. This is quite important—the election was costly, and that money came from taxpayers. We must think about whether the municipal election was worthwhile. Another part, which is more important, is the political process. Elections are a mechanism which ensure responsibility and accountability of the elected. People will vote for someone they like, and if they don’t like them, they will not cast a vote for him in the next elections. I mean elections are an important mechanism to ensure the responsibility and accountability of the elected. At the same time, it proves the legitimacy of the elected; the number of the votes they receive shows how legitimate they are. The election is important for those two points. There are around 3.2 million [eligible] voters, and the fact that less than 15 percent of them cast votes will have an impact on legitimacy. What is more important is I am afraid people doubt that the election is the mechanism through which they can demand accountability of the elected. While the financial worthiness is important, the political process is also important. The low turnout indicates that people don’t think the election was important for their lives, their voices and their participation in politics. It is not good that they are not interested in voting in local elections which can have direct and immediate impact on their daily lives, not to mention the national-level elections. So in my view, it is an important matter for politicians, civil society organizations and the media.

YN: Many young candidates contested the municipal election. And voters apparently like young people contesting the election because they will gain electoral experience even if they lose, and will gain administrative experience if they win. This paves the way for young people to participate in politics and administration. It is therefore fair to say that the elections are a political training field for the young people.  Ko Aung Khant, what experiences did you gain from the election? You got over 20,500 votes in the election—the second highest number after the winner, an NLD candidate who got 28,000 votes. Even though you lost, the results show that there is strong public support for you. Your supporters want to know if you will just give up.

Aung Khant: People had a greater interest in the election because there were young candidates. They had a greater interest because capable young persons contested the election. I think this is the reason why I got the second highest number of votes. In my opinion, people think new-faced independent candidates will be closer to the people, better understand their difficulties and must have learnt more than their older counterparts—not to mention that they are physically stronger and more familiar with modern technology. People are more likely to vote for those who are close to them and who understand their problems. If the candidate is unapproachable, and he doesn’t come to meet you and doesn’t know the problems on the ground… people are not interested in politics because of the top-down approach. When they see young persons involved in politics, people start to think things might change. They think young persons will better understand their problems and will be more approachable and will not indulge in power as they have never been in a position of power. I am not from a strong political organization, and I have never been involved in politics. This is the first time I have experienced the campaign period. As the campaign period is only one month, I just did as much as I could. I am not financially strong, and I’d said that I would spend economically. As I have no one to [sponsor] me with the campaign, only my neighbors and friends helped me and I am quite proud that I won the second most votes. I am very grateful to those who helped me with my campaign, as well as those who voted for me. I will not give up. I studied urban administration and as I have engaged in urban administration in my jobs in Yangon, I will continue to participate in this sector in the future. For the 2020 general election, I will have to look for an appropriate role I can play.

YN: What is your assessment of the performance of the election commission that supervises the entire electoral process? Do you think they can properly handle the election?

SYKSM: Overall, the commission was able to successfully organize the election. They properly managed thousands of polling stations in 33 townships without any big problem. There was no big problem on election day. Overall, the management was smooth and systematic. Our main intention in observing the election is to assess the process in order to improve it in the next election. According to our findings, in half of the polling stations one to 10 people could not cast votes because they were not included on the voter registrar. This is an important matter not only for the municipal election, but also for general elections in 2020. The Union Election Commission has to think about how to handle it. It is a cause for concern that voters are disenfranchised while the turnout is so low in the municipal poll. We still don’t know exactly what caused it, but we are sure something must have gone wrong with voter registrars. It is indisputable that [the election commission] failed to educate voters on a wide scale, and make them check the voter registrar ahead of the election. Also on election day, between one and 10 voters at 43 percent of polling stations needed the help of commission officials because they didn’t know how to cast their vote. This indicates that there are still weaknesses in voter education in the pre-election period. On election day, 3 percent of observers were not allowed to enter polling stations because they were mistaken for party and candidate agents due to the lack of a proper ID system in place. That is a high number. The most important thing is…we asked for information about the polling stations from the municipal election commission. We used the data and drew samples to make observations. It is a sample-based observation. When we went to the polling stations on the morning of election day according to the location information we got from the commission, [some of] the polling stations were not there. They were moved to other places for various reasons such as there was a Dhamma sermon at the planned venue recently, and it was therefore moved to another place. Observers had to contact the commission to find some polling stations. But what about the voters? What if they didn’t find the polling stations? We found such situation in 3 to 4 percent of polling stations. I would suggest the commission hold discussions with candidates, parties and observers on the causes of this problem. The commission should review what preparations need to be made for the next [municipal] election. Otherwise, those problems will continue to exist.

YN: There were criticisms that the municipal election was held hastily as a follow-up to the enactment of the new 2018 Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) Law. But the law still can’t be applied properly. Now, the members of the central executive body and township level bodies of the YCDC have been elected through a poll in which just 10 percent of voters cast vote. They have just around two years until their term ends. So, Ko Aung Khant, what do you think they can and should do?

AK: Though they were elected by a small proportion of voters, they are elected to the municipality, and we will wait and see if they will be granted greater authority. As far as I know, there is an 18-point scope of responsibility set by the new law for YCDC members. One of the six members in the central executive body will be elected as vice mayor and it will be interesting to see how the regional government will delegate power to them. Even if the regional government doesn’t delegate power to them, they should listen to [the people’s] voices about city affairs such as the operation of the YBS (Yangon Bus Service). As they conducted election campaigns, they must have heard the voices of the public. As they are elected by the Yangon residents, they would know the problems facing Yangon residents. They have the responsibility to present those problems to the Yangon regional government and the chief minister. Many candidates made promises during the election campaign. According to the polls made by the media and civil society organizations and members of the public, [the public] wants to see short-term and long-term plans to address problems related to garbage disposal, drainage, stray dogs, as well as street vendors and car parking spaces. As I came to know more about the things in the 12 townships of Constituency 3, the elected candidates would also know more about their constituencies. As they have been made aware of those problems, I would like to invite them to come and meet the [unelected] candidates. We are ready to help them though we are not elected. We just can’t ignore those problems because we were not elected. It is undutiful to ignore them. If we choose to be left out because we are not elected even after we conducted election campaigns, it is like we are giving up on the hopes of the people from whom we solicited votes. We are therefore responsible to monitor the municipality members, provide them with recommendations and help. If we are not allowed to help, we are still responsible to urge the public to point out their faults. Many management positions with some authority have been created in the municipal body, and how far they can go will also depend on how much power is delegated [to them] in this short period of time. Because of [the people’s] high hopes, we are obliged to help and monitor the elected. If they don’t accept our help and monitoring, we have to point out their faults. We have a responsibility to do so because we were voted for by people no matter how small the percentage was.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!