Confidence high in by-elections but party platforms remain vague, says survey

30 March 2017
Confidence high in by-elections but party platforms remain vague, says survey
Photo: Ben Dunant

Results from a survey conducted by a domestic observer group among voters for the 1 April by-elections indicate a strong intention to vote, and a high degree of confidence in the fairness and integrity of the process.
However, only 32 percent said they were sufficiently informed about the policies and platforms of contesting candidates and parties, suggesting only limited contact during what has so far been a muted two-month-long campaign period.
The network, Election Education and Observation Partners (EEOP)—one of several local entities observing the process—released the survey alongside their Pre-Election Statement in a press conference at the Orchid Hotel in Yangon on 29 March.
The by-elections are being held for 19 vacant seats, in both the national and in state and regional parliaments: eight seats in Shan State, five in Yangon Region, and one each in Mon, Rakhine, Chin and Kayah states and Bago and Sagaing regions.
Three seats being contested are vacant because of the death of the elected parliamentarian; six, in Kyethi and Monghsu townships of Shan State, because voting was cancelled in 2015 under security grounds; and the remainder because the elected parliamentarians were appointed by the President to the executive or judiciary.
Five other townships, also in Shan State and controlled by ethnic armed groups based along the Chinese border, that were excluded from the 2015 election under security pretexts will not feature in the 1 April by-elections. They will remain without any parliamentary representation.
EEOP interviewed 565 voters, in 21 out of 22 townships where voting will take place, between 25-27 March. Although balance was achieved regarding the gender and age range of respondents, 85 percent were “urban” residents. It is therefore plausible that a higher degree of estrangement from the process among rural voters was not captured.
Among respondents, 78 percent said they intended to vote, and 79 percent said they had been sufficiently informed about where, when and how to vote—aided by voter education drives carried out by civil society groups, including members of EEOP. It was also helped by the fact that more that 83 percent voted in the 2015 general election. 
Voters largely perceived a clean, fair, and unrestricted process, with only 2 percent suspecting vote buying by candidates,and the use of government resources and personnel to benefit a particular party. 
Questioned on the neutrality of local branches of the election commission, 65 percent of voters responded that they were “usually neutral,” 2 percent that they were “sometimes biased,” 1 percent that they were “often biased,” and 32 percent that they “didn’t know.”
However, 63 percent of respondents said they did not have the knowledge of candidates’ “plans and policies” required to make an informed choice on 1 April.
This reflects a tendency among political parties in Myanmar, seen during the 2015 general election, to eschew debate over policy or existing government programmes in favour of broad messages of change or of continuity.
In early March, speaker of the lower house of Parliament U Win Myint opened the by-election campaign of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) in Yangon with a message “not to vote for those who would hinder democracy.”
In 2015, the NLD had successfully campaigned on a message of “change”—and on the projected virtues of its leader, Daw Aung San Kyi—while refusing to elaborate on policy and curbing the freedom of its candidates to talk to the media.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), currently the largest opposition party, has been running on a more overtly nationalist and authoritarian line for the upcoming by-elections—a shift from 2015, when it focused on its record of increased development and economic growth as the incumbent. 
In a speech in mid March, also in Yangon, USDP chairman U Than Htay invited voters to choose “disciplined” over “disordered” democracy, suggesting that the relaxation of the military’s iron grip on public life had resulted in “chaos” under the NLD.
However, there has been little of the public spectacle that distinguished the 2015 general election, when the USDP and the NLD hosted rallies attracting thousands and drove elaborately decorated trucks blaring loud music through major towns.
In EEOP’s survey, results were mixed over the voter list—one of the key objects of contention in the 2015 election, although claims by the NLD and civil society members of gross inaccuracies in the list were not borne out in widespread disenfranchisement or confusion on Election Day.
Among voters, 48 percent said their details were logged correctly on the list, with 8 percent citing inaccuracies. The remaining 44 percent had to yet to check the list, which has been put on public display in ward and village tract offices for two two-week periods, one in early February and the other from the middle of March.
Last year, local election sub-commissions went door-to-door to update the voter list in townships marked for the by-elections. However, in a statement released in mid February, another observer group, the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), claimed that this door-to-door sweep missed out 45 percent of voters.
Although falling around the end of the NLD’s first year in power—alongside a wave of critical media comment over sluggish progress in the peace process and in economic reform—the 1 April by-elections themselves have failed to capture the attention, locally and internationally, won by the April 2012 by-elections.
The latter marked the entry of the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi into the national parliament—and by extension, into the reform process launched by the military-backed government of President U Thein Sein in 2011. The party, which had boycotted the 2015 general election, won 43 out of 45 available seats in 2012. 
The 1 April by-elections—which involve only 12 out of 664 seats in the national Parliament—are too minor to upset current power alignments or usher in any new political forces.
However, the NLD’s performance in the 2015 election—winning over 80 percent of parliamentary seats, excluding the 25 percent occupied by the military—has set the bar high for the ruling party, and ethnic parties are eager to make up for their considerable under performance in 2015. Meanwhile, the USDP appears convinced of a comeback.