Beyond NLD, Yangon voters stumped on smaller parties


A young supporter holds the picture of Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar's founding father, on Martyrs' Day commemorations in Yangon, July 19, 2015.

A young supporter holds the picture of Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar's founding father, on Martyrs' Day commemorations in Yangon, July 19, 2015. (PHOTO - Myanmar Now/ Hkun Lat) 

It’s the National League for Democracy or nothing, according to a straw poll of voters in Yangon townships carried out with four weeks to go before Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election.

Myanmar Now carried out dozens of interviews in three townships in the commercial capital Yangon to gauge the public’s mood and political inclinations. 

Among 45 people interviewed in Hlaing Tharyar, Mingalar Taung Nyunt and Thingangyun constituencies, 29 said they intend to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, although for varying reasons. 

Strikingly, the remainder of those who did not have a clear preference for the NLD said they had little interest in voting or the elections in general.

In comments that would worry independent candidates and those from smaller parties, almost all were unaware of other political parties beyond the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition NLD. 

Only four interviewees said they would decide who to vote for after scrutinising the candidates. 

The interviews in the three constituencies – where around half a million voters have been registered so far, according to Union Election Commission officials - provide a snapshot of the public’s perceptions and aspirations ahead of what has been billed as Myanmar’s first free and fair polls in 25 years. 

Myanmar Now’s interviews revealed that despite recent controversies - such as the rejection of candidates of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist group and public attacks from the nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement - the NLD is still the party to beat in Yangon.

The three constituencies will elect a total of 12 candidates - one each for the Upper House and Lower House, and two for the regional parliament - from among the 99 who are vying for the seats.  

Among the NLD candidates contesting the townships is popular activist blogger Nay Phone Latt, who is running for a Yangon parliament seat in Thingangyun. Well-known lawmaker Phyu Phyu Thin - who established a pioneering HIV treatment clinic - is running for re-election to the Lower House for Suu Kyi’s party in Mingalar Taung Nyunt.

‘NO OTHER CHOICE’

“This is the time for us to vote, to make changes our country that for decades has been left behind. I don’t know exactly who’s running in our township, but I know who we should vote for and what their logo is,” said Zeya Lin from Thingangyun.

“Many people in my neighbourhood are not interested in politics so I try and inform them that the only party that could bring change is the NLD. Do I like them much? Well, at the moment there isn’t any other choice.”

His comments were echoed by a government worker in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, who declined to give his name.

“I’ve experienced three elections so far - 1990, 2010 and 2012. Everybody is shouting ‘Daw Suu, Daw Suu’ but what if the people below her are not good? I like (President) U Thein Sein, but the people below him are not like him. They are not good,” he said.

“Comparing those two, you just have to vote for NLD for a change in politics,” he said. 

Many interviewees said, however, they had no interest in the polls, could not be bothered to verify their names on the error-riddled voter lists, or were disillusioned with the process because they believed the army would interfere with the vote, as in the past.

“I’m not on the voter list. I’m not going to bother with registering so I’ll not be on it. It’s just too much effort. If your name isn’t on the list, then you just don’t go to vote,” said Yan Naung Soe, a tricycle driver form Thingangyun Township.

“I don’t know about politics and I’m not interested. One has to struggle to feed oneself. Regardless of who come into power, what’s important is to keep working.” 

On Sept. 21, the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, a coalition of local NGOs observing election preparations warned it was concerned about a lack of information around the election and potential low turnout.

UPHILL STRUGGLE?

Of the three constituencies, Hlaing Tharyar, a sprawling mix of shanty towns and industrial estates on Yangon’s northern outskirts, has the largest number of candidates - 52 - running for the three parliaments. 

It has also emerged as one of the main areas in the city affected by widespread voter registration problems, which has reportedly resulted in tens of thousands of would-be voters to be left off voter lists.

Thingangyun and Mingalar Taung Nyunt, in Yangon’s east and close to downtown area respectively, are densely populated and have a sizeable minority of Muslim voters. Residents in Thingangyun will choose from 28 candidates and Mingalar Taung Nyunt from 19. 

USDP candidates won Lower House seats in Hlaing Tharyar and Mingalar Taung Nyunt in the 2010 general elections, while a candidate from National Democratic Force (NDF), which splintered from the NLD to contest that year, won in Thingangyun. 

The NLD boycotted the 2010 polls, however, which were widely considered to have been rigged by the then-ruling junta.

Very few interviewees openly expressed support for any parties beyond the NLD, indicating that smaller, lesser-known parties could struggle to gain a foothold in Yangon, even though it probably has the most well-informed and educated electorate of any part of Myanmar.

Maung Myint, a betel-nut seller in Thingangyun, is one of the few who said his vote is still up for grabs, but said he had received little information on alternatives to the NLD or USDP. 

“I’m not voting for either of the two famous parties. I don’t like them,” he said. “One is popular but I haven’t seen anything in practice so I don’t want to support them. The other one is set up by those who oppress the people,” he added. 

The stall holder said he had only received two pamphlets from other candidates, and seen little of campaigning by any of the smaller parties.

“I don’t know which candidates and parties are contesting in my township. I also don’t really know what the process of voting is going to be. I’ll just have to play it by ear when I get (to the polling station),” he said. 

Smaller political parties say budgetary constraints have forced them to push their campaigns as close as possible to the election date, compounding their struggle to raise awareness in a crowded field. 

“We will start campaigning in the first week of October. We have neither the manpower nor financial resources,” said Hla Toe, vice chairman of Kaman National Party who is running for a Lower House seat in Mingalar Taung Nyunt. “If we campaign too early, the voters may forget about us.”

The Kaman are a recognised Muslim minority from Rakhine State and Hla Toe is one of a small group of 28 Muslim candidates who have been allowed to run by the Union Election Commission. 

The commission drew criticism from independent election observers after it disqualified many other Muslim candidates based on the strict enforcement of citizenship requirements.

FOLLOWING OTHERS' LEADS

Among those who said they would vote for the NLD are die-hard supporters, as well as those who say they are doing so because others are. 

“An educated cousin at home talks about the NLD and my immediate circle is also talking about NLD, so I think I would also vote NLD. It’s not really because they’re good or I like them. It’s just that I’ve heard a lot about them,” said 50-year-old Than Than Swe, a seller of traditional snacks in Mingalar Taung Nyunt. 

Many also acknowledged that they don’t know what the exact process of voting would involve. 

“I’ve voted once before, but I don’t know what has changed and how I’m supposed to vote,” said Kyi Kyi San, a vendor in Hlaing Thar Yar. “I just feel pleased when I see a fighting peacock flag,” she added, referring to NLD’s red flag with the star and peacock symbol.

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