Early Hours of By-Election See Modest Voter Turnout
By The Irrawaddy 3 November 2018
YANGON — Myanmar’s second by-elections under the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) officially began when the doors to polling stations in eight of the country’s 14 regions and states opened to voters on Saturday at 6 a.m.
The results will not impact the structure of the current government, but they will serve as an important indicator of the level of support for the parties ahead of the 2020 general elections.
For the NLD, which won a landslide victory in the 2012 by-elections under the previous administration as well as the 2015 general elections, Saturday’s polls are a test of whether they remain just as popular. More than two years after taking power, and half way through its term, the government led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has come under growing criticism for a lack of progress on economic reforms, backsliding on freedom of expression and generally falling short on its election promises, though it has received praise for its stepped-up fight against corruption.
During the last by-elections in April 2017, the NLD won only nine of 19 vacant seats — only 50 percent of those it contested — and lost in three of the four ethnic minority areas it challenged, including in areas it won in 2015.
Saturday’s polls are being held to fill 13 vacant seats in Union, state and regional parliaments. There are 62 candidates from 24 parties — including those from the NLD and its main opposition, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — and seven independents.
The NLD is contesting all 13 races, while the military-backed USDP, which ran the previous government, is contesting 10. Among the seats the ruling party is challenging are four in ethnic minority areas in Chin, Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states where the NLD has relatively little popular support. In 2015 it lost two of them — Lechar in Shan and Rathedaung in Rakhine — to ethnic minority parties.
On Saturday morning, some voters started arriving at polling stations in a steady stream, a contrast to the general elections three years ago, when throngs of people lined up before the stations were even open.
In Moegoke, Mandalay Region, only a few voters had arrived soon after polling stations opened at 6 a.m. The area has 41 stations to accommodate about 15,000 ethnic Shan eligible to vote for a new Shan ethnic affairs minister for the region.
But in Rathedaung, in northern Rakhine, where the NLD is up against an independent and two local Rakhine parties — the Arakan National Party and the Arakan League for Democracy — voter interest appeared stronger. Locals were lined up outside the public school classrooms being used as polling stations.
Arakan League for Democracy candidate U Thein Maung said he was pleased with the turnout.
“They have already decided who they will vote for. It’s nice to see them show up and cast their ballots,” he said.
In Yangon’s Tamwe Township, where President U Win Myint will cast his ballot, some voters spent the morning queued up at the polling station. Assisted by his younger sister, Uncle Charles, 62, who suffers from hemiparesis, made his way out of the station and said he voted for the NLD. Boasting of being a longtime NLD supporter, the retired civil servant said he had also voted for the party in 1990, 2012 and 2015.
“I understand they haven’t achieved big things so far due to the constraints of the Constitution. But I vote for them because I believe they are the only ones who will do good for people,” he said.
Around mid-morning, US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel visited the polling station and said he was happy to see people voting.
“We strongly support Myanmar democracy and we are here to support the election,” he said.
Additional reporting by The Irrawaddy’s San Yamin Aung in Yangon, Zarni Mann in Mandalay and Min Aung Khine.