The attractive middle-aged woman reaches over the top of a gate and hands a journal to a shirtless man, a small tuft of grey hair on his chest. "Don’t worry, Daw Nay Yee, you’ve got my vote," he says, handing back 200 kyats, the equivalent of about 20 US cents.
The small group of Democratic Party (Myanmar) members continue along the potted suburban Yangon street, which is flanked by large, mildewing houses built during the socialist era under General Ne Win. The residents of this section of Sanchaung township are a mixed bag, from former senior military officers and "old money" to gatekeepers and gardeners. For the most part they are united — and effusive — in their support for Daw Nay Yee Ba Swe.
"I used to live in this area, until about seven years ago," says the Democratic Party secretary and daughter of former Prime Minister U Ba Swe. "Most of the people I knew then have left so I’m working to build up my profile again. I’ve been getting a good response; people recognise me, and of course they know my father as well." She explains to voters that the election is like a small window to democracy. "We need to take this difficult path for our children, for the future generations," she says, drawing thoughtful nods of agreement.
For the majority of candidates in Burma’s election — hardly household names in a country where politics has been largely off limits for 20 years — campaigning in the lead up to Sunday’s poll was more difficult. The two decade long tussle between the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military government left voters wary of politics and fearful of the consequences should they show support for opposition candidates.
There were no mass public rallies before Sunday’s poll — "They’re not worth the effort or cost to organise; we can’t even be sure people will turn up," one party leader told me — and restrictions on party publications are onerous. Local private journals, while vibrant and following the election closely, are still subject to government censorship. Special Branch operatives film all public events, intimidating participants, and candidates and members are often followed when they hand out flyers.
Regardless, the "democratic parties" — probably fewer than half of the 37 registered groups — had almost no chance of gaining a majority in the lower and upper houses from the outset.
Once the NLD leadership chose in late March not to take part, ensuring the party would be deregistered, the die was cast. The government’s election laws ensured there would be no viable democratic opposition to challenge the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The cost of registering a candidate was set at the local equivalent of US$500, a figure most of the parties were unable to provide. Consequently, more than 2100 of the 3070 candidates are from either the USDP or National Unity Party, the NLD’s rival from 1990. The Democratic Party put up 47 candidates, while the National Democratic Force, formed by former members of the now-deregistered National League for Democracy, fielded 163 candidates.
In many state or regional constituencies — and perhaps one-third of upper and lower house seats — voters will have only candidates from the two establishment parties to choose between. "We are not fighting for first or even second place," the chairman of the Union Democratic Party conceded last week in an interview with local media.
The results of this election have not yet been released but if the votes are tallied properly, democratic parties are likely to win a good proportion of the constituencies they contest — perhaps up to a third of all seats in the lower and upper houses of the national parliament.
This will give them a foothold with which to influence economic, health and education policies and, in five years time, perhaps to offer a real challenge to the USDP in a more even and open setting. The senior military officials responsible for running the country into the ground are expected to fade from the scene, putting the power into the hands of younger and, hopefully, more reform-minded individuals.
This scenario could only take place in a setting where the generals do not feel threatened; the 2008 constitution, while extremely flawed, guarantees them this comfort.
There’s comfort too because the ground has shifted significantly since 1990; the most obvious change being that the NLD did not contest the election. Unlike 20 years ago, this was a parliamentary election and not a vote to elect representatives to draft a constitution, a common misperception about the NLD’s 1990 victory.
That was an election won largely on emotion. By voting day almost any candidate running on an NLD ticket was guaranteed to win. The people were still shocked at the military’s bloody crackdown two years earlier and needed little encouragement to throw them out.
This time around there was a constitution that ensures the military won’t be leaving any time soon, with 25 per cent of seats in all parliaments reserved for defence services personnel.
Creating belief among voters that they can make a difference to the outcome was been far more difficult, which goes some way to explaining the low voter turnout. The onus was on candidates from the democratic parties to explain to voters why they should exercise their right to vote — and then why they should ignore local officials and vote for a party other than the USDP.
And some democratic candidates underperformed in this regard during the campaign period, failing to engage with voters in any meaningful way. The NLD’s boycott campaign — or, more precisely, its campaign to remind voters they don’t have to vote — was almost invisible and had little impact, except among some urban intelligentsia.
Fear and apathy played a much greater role. "I’m not voting for anyone," a friend from Yangon’s North Okkalapa told me. "I want to stay neutral. That’s the best way." For this reason, violence was a remote prospect. As one local political analyst pointed out last week, you can only feel strongly about a candidate or a party — strongly enough to get involved in a protest, for example — if you know exactly who they are and what they stand for. "Most voters don’t even know the candidates in their constituency," he said.
A lack of political experience -— about 80 per cent of the NDF’s Yangon candidates had never contested an election, for example — as well as financial constraints and campaigning restrictions have combined to bring some democratic politicians unstuck.
But in other areas, a new generation emerged. Pazundaung, in downtown Yangon, was considered a safe seat for the local USDP candidate, a publisher with close links to the Minister of Information.
Enter independent candidate U Yan Kyaw. A former activist who contested the 1990 election but lost to the NLD representative, U Yan Kyaw became a visible and vocal presence in the township over the past few weeks. Shunning more conservative party politics, he quickly won over the local media with outspoken speeches at press conferences and his "say no to the ‘yes men’" slogan. Less than a month ago I heard from one man from Pazundaung that he wouldn’t bother voting because the USDP already had the seat sown up; but in the days before the election, residents confided that they plan to vote for the mee eain, or lantern, a reference to U Yan election logo.
While the USDP and NUP are expected to dominate Myanmar’s post-election parliaments, having brave politicians like U Yan Kyaw in the legislative process can only be a step forward.
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