Landmark City Elections Underway in Rangoon

By The Irrawaddy 27 December 2014

RANGOON — Rangoon residents went to the polls on Saturday to elect a portion of their municipal government for the first time in more than 60 years, though initial reports indicated the landmark vote was under attended by an ill-informed electorate.

A total of 293 candidates are vying for 115 seats at the central, district and township levels of the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), which oversees management of Burma’s biggest city.

Early indications were of an underwhelming voter turnout. Polls opened at 6:00 am and by midday, three polling stations in Insein Township—each of which had registered 500 households as eligible to vote—had seen 148, 36 and 41 voters cast ballots, respectively.

Win Cho, a former political prisoner and rights activist, is running for one of four seats on the YCDC Central Committee, the municipal government’s highest representative body. The nine-member Central Committee is also comprised of five appointed members, including its chairman, Rangoon Mayor Hla Myint.

The 57-year-old Win Cho, who is not eligible to vote due to his criminal record, told The Irrawaddy on Saturday that his wife had run into problems at their local polling station.

“I have found that some officials at the polling station had no idea about the procedures,” he said. “My name appeared on the voting list. That’s not what is supposed to happen. After my complaints, they fixed it and let my wife cast the vote.”

Voter awareness also appeared to be an issue.

“I voted for U Khin Maung Soe, from Insein Township. I know him, but the other two that I voted for, I don’t know about them,” said 53-year-old Aye Mu. “I hope they are good people. I just wish the three I voted for are good for the country and for the people.”

In Insein Township’s Zaygone quarter, where many people are civil servants from police and railway departments, resident Win Lwin Oo, 48, said the election was “low-profile,” and that many in his neighborhood had only learned of it on Saturday.

“Another problem is that many people here are civil servants. The government has warned that every civil servant must have nothing to do with politics, so people think it’d be better for them to stay away from the election too.”

By 1 pm on Saturday, two Zaygone quarter polling stations where 838 households were registered had only seen 76 ballots cast, polling officials there told The Irrawaddy.

In addition to the four Central Committee seats, 12 district- and 99 township-level positions are up for a vote. According to the 2014 YCDC election by-law, each district and township will consist of an elected three-member committee. Candidates for these seats are running under one of three designations—community leaders, academics and civil society representatives—and each committee will be made up of one of each.

“I think the process is clear, it’s not confusing, but I don’t know who all of the candidates are. I only know one candidate contesting for the Central Committee,” said Thi Thi, a 45-year-old voter from Insein Township. “I voted for him because I know him personally. He and his family do social work in the ward.”

Election officials have set up 1,086 polling stations across Rangoon’s 33 townships. Polls close at 4 pm, and ballots will be tallied at each individual polling station, with the results then forwarded to City Hall. YCDC Election Commission chairman Tin Aye told The Irrawaddy last week that final results could be expected within 48 hours of the vote cut-off.

While Saturday’s polls mark a measure of democratization for a municipal body that has been appointed since 1949, critics say the election falls short of allowing for a fully representative city government. Only one member of each registered household in Rangoon, a city of some 5 million people, has been allowed to vote, and the post-election Central Committee will remain majority-appointed by Rangoon Division’s unelected chief minister.

This week Rangoon Mayor Hla Myint appeared to downplay the significance of the vote, saying YCDC committee members were “not policymakers or decision-makers,” and were ultimately tasked with carrying out the dictates of their divisional and Union government superiors.

Reporting by Lawi Weng, San Yamin Aung and Feliz Solomon.