Despite Myanmar’s growing coronavirus caseload and continuing unrest in some areas, early voting began Thursday for the November 8 general election, which involves nearly 100 political parties and contests for the upper and lower houses of the national, state and regional governments.
Early voters include citizens unable to return to their constituencies because of COVID-19 restrictions, and voters older than 60 in townships under stay-at-home orders, according to the Union Election Commission (UEC). A total of 1,171 seats are being contested,
according to the Carter Center, which counts participation by over 6,900 candidates from 92 political parties and independent campaigns.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, and President Win Myint were among the early voters in Naypyitaw, the nation’s capital. The election is largely a referendum on Suu Kyi’s leadership and achievements in the face of an economic crisis triggered by COVID-19.
Burman control expected
The Buddhist Burman majority is expected to remain in control, even in areas where people who belong to non-Burman ethnic minorities make up most of the population. A continued Burman grip on power may mean a sharpening of grievances among Muslims and other minorities and an increase in armed conflict, according to analysts.
The largest Muslim minority, the Rohingya, are largely disenfranchised in Myanmar and in Bangladesh, where as many as 800,000 have fled to live in refugee camps.
“The commitment of Myanmar to uphold fundamental and inclusive principles for political representation and universal suffrage is an ongoing concern in this election cycle,” the Carter Center said. As of December 18, 2019, 37.4 million people over age 18 were registered to vote. This does not include members of the military and their families, according to the Step Democracy Program of the European Union.
Suu Kyi, 75, is on the ballot for her Lower House seat representing Kawhmu Township, which she won in 2015. That was Myanmar’s first general election since a marginally civilian government was introduced in 2011 to end nearly 50 years of military rule. The military continues to hold 25% of the seats in each legislative body.
Win Myint, 68, is also running for the national Lower House, where he holds a seat representing Tamwe Township that he secured in the 2015 general election.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is widely expected to be returned to power in the vote. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is expected to dominate the nominations for seats in the military bloc.
If Suu Kyi’s party wins, she will resign from her constituency to form a government. The winner of a by-election will then represent Kawhmu Township.
Suu Kyi said on Monday that the government was well-prepared for the election, despite the COVID-19 outbreak. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Myanmar has tallied 49,072 cases and 1,172 deaths as of Thursday, during a spike that began in mid-August. The International Crisis Group said there could be "serious public health ramifications" once the voting is over.
PPE from China
After studying how other countries have conducted elections during the pandemic, the government is flying in personal protective equipment from China “so people can cast their votes in safety on election day and are encouraged to do so,” Suu Kyi said in televised remarks.
The restrictions imposed to contain the coronavirus have led to what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) calls “a sharp decline in exports, remittances and tourist arrivals,” all key drivers of Myanmar’s economy. Households and businesses, including agriculture, which constitutes a fifth of the economy and over half of employment, have been affected.
Aung Ko, a 75-year-old resident of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, told VOA Burmese that voting on Thursday under pandemic regulations was much different from casting a ballot in 2015. “The arrangements aren’t adequate,” partly because people from three wards were voting at one location. “It is crowded. It is hard to pick up ballots for elders. Voters with no experience will be in trouble.”
In Mon State, election observer Maung Zaw Tun told VOA Burmese that “only 100 or so” voters cast ballots in six hours. “It is hard for elders to be in line. It is crowded unnecessarily. Some do not have voter education, and it took at least 20 minutes.” He predicted “a challenge on the elections day.”
Khin Maung Oo, UEC director general, told VOA Burmese on the first day of early voting that there were “no official complaints filed on discrepancies. ... Whenever there is a problem on the ground … we will solve problems according to the elections law.”
On October 16, citing security concerns, the UEC announced whole or partial cancellations of voting in constituencies in Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan states, and the Bago Region. On October 27, the commission canceled voting in areas of the Paletwa township, Chin State.
The UEC was criticized for favoring the NLD because many voters in the restive states support ethnic parties, according to a statement released October 18 by the Kachin State People’s Party, Kayah State Democratic Party, Karen National Democratic Party, Chin National League for Democracy and Mon Unity Party.
It is unclear when voters in these areas will be allowed to vote.
“The Union Election Commission is making decisions affecting people’s right to choose their representatives without an iota of transparency,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Wednesday. “Myanmar’s election commission needs to fully explain the basis for its decisions on each of the affected townships, which affect the voting rights of 1.5 million largely ethnic minority people.”
Thet Naing, in Sittwe; Htet Aung Khant in Mandalay, and VOA Burmese journalists in Naypyidaw, Agga Non, Mon State and Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.