Voter Turnout Sluggish in By-Election

By The Irrawaddy 1 April 2017

RANGOON — Polling stations in 22 townships across Burma witnessed low voter turnouts for by-elections on Saturday morning.

More than two million people in five states and three divisions, including Rangoon Division, and Arakan, Shan, and Mon states, are eligible to cast their votes—in the first polls under the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government after it swept to power in 2015’s general election—according to the Union Election Commission (UEC).

A total of 24 political parties contested the 19 seats up for grabs, with the main opposition party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) fielding candidates for all seats and the ruling NLD competing for 18.

The elections will not upset the balance of power in the Union Hluttaw, Burma’s parliament, where the NLD enjoys a large majority.

The number of voters casting their ballots on Saturday morning appeared low compared to the large queues that formed at polling stations before they opened for the 2015 general election.

In Rangoon’s Kawhmu Township—once represented by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—only a handful of voters were evident at polling stations on Saturday morning.

“The interest is quite low, the polling station has been open for two hours, but only about 100 voters have visited out of a possible 700,” said U San Myint, the UEC chairman for Ma Kyee Tan quarter in the township.

After three hours of polling at the 13th quarter of Hlaing Township, Rangoon, NLD election observer Daw Thi Thi Win looked nervous—she told The Irrawaddy that only 109 people out the 1575 eligible had so far cast their votes.

“Turnout has been really low so far. We want voters to visit as soon as they can. Polls close at 4p.m., I don’t want them to miss this chance,” she said.

In Ann Township, home to the single vacant seat in Arakan State, it was the same story.

“In 2015, I personally witnessed queues at the polling stations since the early morning, but today only hundreds of people showed up,” said a local election observer Ko Myo Lwin.

He said Ann Township constituents may be uninterested in voting to decide their Lower House representative as one vacant seat will not sway the balance of power in parliament.

Both USDP and NLD candidates in Kyethi and Mong Hsu townships in northern Shan State said the situation was stable at polling stations in their constituencies.

The townships didn’t vote in the 2015 general election due to fighting between the Burma Army and armed ethnic groups in the area.

“We are having a peaceful by-election here,” said USDP candidate U Sai Kyaw Tin Shwe from Mine Hsu Township. “People queued at some stations but there were also only a few people at some stations.”

In Mon State’s Chaungzon Township—where the NLD has come under fire for persisting in naming a new bridge after Gen. Aung San despite local protests—the voter turnout was also reportedly low compared to 2015.

The NLD won the Chaungzon seat in the 2015 general election and on Saturday will compete against two local ethnic Mon parties—the Mon National Party (MNP) and the All Mon Regions Democracy Party (AMRDP)—along with main rival the USDP.

Irrawaddy reporters Tun Tun in Kamhmu, Hintharnee in Chaungzon, Zarni Mann in Mandalay, Moe Myint, Zue Zue, and Emily in Rangoon, contributed to this report.