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CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Slow off the Mark for Burma’s Smaller Political Parties

Candidate disqualifications, a lack of funds and regulatory hurdles are cited by smaller political parties as reasons for their electoral bids’ modest launches.


RANGOON — If election watchers have been underwhelmed by the campaign rollouts of Burma’s biggest political parties this week, even less impressive has been the campaign trail presence of the dozens of parties that will struggle to make their voices heard above the inevitable din of a highly anticipated electoral contest.

Candidate disqualifications and their still-pending appeals, a lack of funds and regulatory hurdles have all been cited by some of the country’s smaller parties as reasons that their electoral bids have started off with more of a whimper than a bang.

Burma’s two largest parties, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National League for Democracy (NLD), kicked off their campaigns with floats and processions in Mandalay on Tuesday, as their candidates also began reaching out to voters with less fanfare elsewhere in the country.

But for parties with fewer resources and little name recognition, the opening week of official campaign season for the historic vote has been more about pacing, processing and paring expectations.

The Wun Thar Nu Democratic Party is among those who have seen their initial general election ambitions tempered: The party originally intended to field 20 candidates, but in the end will only contest four seats in the Mandalay Division parliament.

Nang Shwe Kyar, the party’s general secretary, said the high dropout rate could be chalked up to a variety of reasons, with some of the selected candidates ultimately bowing out because they “lacked the courage to compete with the strong parties.” The party had been a rare bright spot for advocates of greater female representation in Burmese politics, with 18 of its 20 candidates being women. In the end, the party ticket sees three women and one man compete for the vote in a general election due Nov. 8.

Nang Shwe Kyar said the party’s campaign will launch on Sept. 15, a full week after the official campaign season opened. Even with its diminished roster of parliamentary hopefuls in need of campaign cash, the party is also struggling to make a financially competitive bid for the Mandalay legislature. While the Union Election Commission (UEC) has set a campaign spending cap at 10 million kyats (US$7,800), Nang Shwe Kyar said each candidate would only be allocated 1.2 million kyats.

Party members were scrambling to prepare campaign materials, including stickers and posters, the general secretary said.

“Our party cannot spend the 100 lakh [one lakh is equivalent to 100,000 kyats]. But if needed, the 18 [central] committee members will pay—as decided at our meeting—for transportation, to treat volunteers, et cetera,” Nang Shwe Kyar said.

Though the Wun Thar Nu Democratic Party’s candidate footprint in the 2015 campaign has shrunk considerably, its leadership can take comfort in the fact that it, at least, is not facing an existential crisis, as is the case for the Human Rights and Democracy Party.

Party chairman Kyaw Min confirmed on Friday that the party had seen its appeals rejected for 17 of the 18 candidates it had filed to contest. The candidate roster included mostly Rohingya Muslims who were denied the opportunity to run for office because they failed to meet a qualifying criterion that both parents be Burmese citizens.

Kyaw Min told The Irrawaddy that he did not know what fate his party would meet, now that it appears to be slated for deregistration under a provision of Burma’s Political Parties Registration Law that requires parties to field at least three candidates in the election.

Sai Saw Than Myint, vice chairman of the Federal Unity Party (FUP), said most of its candidates are still drawing up campaign plans, although ad hoc campaigning has begun in some townships. The party will contest 38 seats in total.

The FUP vice chairman said an election commission requirement that parties disclose detailed campaign plans in advance had delayed a more robust campaign rollout this week.

“The big parties have an abundance of money, so they can do a lot,” Sai Saw Than Myint said.  “For us, as we don’t have much budget. … We cannot hire lots of cars or have so many posters or signboards. We can only campaign on the merits of our hard work and honesty, [stressing] that we will work for the public.”

Like many other smaller parties, FUP candidates themselves and township branch offices will have to cover most campaign expenditures.

Aye Min, chairman of Dawei Nationalities Party, said the party has not yet publicly campaigned in big cities and towns, but would issue their electoral manifesto on Friday. Some campaigning in sub-townships and villages had begun, he added, explaining that rural constituencies where voters were harder to reach would be the priority in the campaign period’s early weeks.

“We will start campaigns in towns only next month,” he said.

Informal “campaigning” in these races, in the form of in-person conversations with voters in teashops and on the streets, would take place in the interim, according to Aye Min.

His party is fielding 13 candidates in southeastern Burma’s Tenasserim Division.

Saw Dixon Tun Lin, a central committee member of the Karen People’s Party, said most of its candidates have not started their campaign activities. The party is competing for 119 seats—57 races in Irrawaddy Division alone, along with seats in Rangoon, Pegu and Tenasserim divisions, and Karen, Mon and Karenni states, as well as a handful of Karen ethnic affairs minister posts.

A candidate himself, contesting a Lower House seat in Rangoon Division’s Insein Township, Saw Dixon Tun Lin has not yet begun to woo voters.

“I have lots of time as it [the official campaign period] is two months. I have prepared pamphlets, and drafted a campaign program,” Saw Dixon Tun Lin said.

“We will just go low-profile in our campaigning, not like the big parties. We will produce pamphlets and campaign as best as we can. We may produce vinyl [posters].”

He said the party is pinning its hopes on the contests in Irrawaddy Division, where it hopes to have considerable sway in the regional legislature when newly elected lawmakers take their seats next year.

Sai Aung Myint Khaing, a central committee member of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), said although the party has not yet organized any large-scale public talks, individual candidates had begun to campaign.

In terms of races contesting, the SNDP is Burma’s largest ethnic party this year, contesting 206 seats in Shan, Karenni and Kachin states, and Mandalay and Sagaing divisions.

The SNDP is providing 700,000 kyats for each candidate to campaign, with those wanting to spend more on their electoral bids having to pay their own way beyond that. The party also fronted the costs of the 300,000 kyats per candidate registration fee, totaling nearly 62 million kyats.

Sai Aung Myint Khaing said that the party expected to do well in its Shan State stronghold and surrounding regions, but acknowledged that the return of the rival Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) to the electoral arena this year would pose stiff competition, in addition to a host of several smaller parties, the USDP and opposition NLD.

“We will have to seek the public’s endorsement after each party communicates our own policies to voters,” he said.

Phaw Lar Kam Phag, central committee secretary of the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State, said the party is still drafting its campaign strategy.

“The regulations set by the election commission are too strict with a lot of details [that parties must provide to the UEC]. We only got the letter [laying out campaign requirements] on Sept. 9,” he said.

The party is competing for nine seats in Kachin State.