Behind the numbers and names, an election picture emerges
Kyaw Phone Kyaw
Myanmar Times, September 2, 2015
While the 2010 election was Myanmar’s first in 20 years, it was like a lopsided football match in which the result was clear well in advance. With the constitution guaranteeing the military a deciding vote in parliament, the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) stacked with former Tatmadaw officials, and the largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotting, few anticipated major changes as a result.
By 2012, the national political balance had changed somewhat. There was a buzz over the NLD jumping into the by-election fray, but that vote covered only 45 constituencies needing new MPs, making it far from a national event.
Arguably, then, it’s not until November 8 that Myanmar will experience its first real election in decades – even the first in living memory, considering the 1990 result was later ignored.
Small wonder the world will be watching. Voter turn-out is bound to be high, with 32 million people eligible to cast ballots at 46,000 polling stations. But given the sheer scale of the event – 93 parties, 1171 constituencies and 6189 candidates – tracking the most interesting match-ups will prove a challenge for even the most dedicated political junkie. Fortunately, The Myanmar Times has parsed the candidate list, perused the party lines and polled the pundits, helping you make sense of exactly it is what we’re looking at with just over two months to go until voting day.
This year’s total of 93 political parties competing doesn’t touch the more than 200 who tilted in 1990, but it’s a big jump on 2010, when a mere 36 threw down. Among this year’s total, 46 parties were established after the 2012 by-election, while 11 parties were established between the 2010 and 2012 polls.
But these are yearlings next to the five oldest parties, which date back to the 1990 vote, making them a quarter-century old. These are: the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD); the Mon National Party (MNP); the National League for Democracy (NLD); the Democratic Party (Myanmar) (DPM); and the National Unity Party (NUP). Other than the NUP, however, all were declared illegal under the military junta and were re-established and re-registered only during President U Thein Sein’s term.
One other party bears highlighting: The Women Party (Mon) is the only party to comprise only women. With Myanmar’s political culture dominated by men, the party has faced a barrage of jeers and criticism, as well as words of support from those who feel it may bring a breath of fresh air to national political discourse. It will run four candidates, in Mon State and Tanintharyi Region, and those constituencies are sure to be closely watched.
Aside from the voters, the election’s main protagonists are the candidates themselves, who number nearly 6200 according to the Union Election Commission (UEC). According to election rules, a political party must field at least three candidates or face disqualification. Seven parties are just on the right side of that line, with three candidates only. On the whole, however, the number of would-be MPs circling November 8 on their calendars is the most to contest an election in Myanmar. This election sees fewer parties in total, but more candidates, with twice 2010’s total of over 3000, and nearly three times 1990’s total of 2300.
Of this year’s hopefuls, 323 are running for election as independents, without the backing – or baggage – of any political party. The majority, however, are aligned with a larger ideology.
The NLD is fielding the biggest team, with 1151 candidates. Trailing by just a truckload is the USDP, with 1134. No other party approaches such national reach, and these two are the only ones who can reasonably claim to be national parties.
Another large bid comes from the National Unity Party, fielding 763 candidates, or two-thirds as many as the NLD, their main rival in 1990.
New to the arena but offering a strong slate of candidates is the National Development Party (NDP). Only five months old by election time, the NDP will nonetheless field an impressive 354 candidates, the fourth-most of any party. Led by former adviser to the president U Nay Zin Latt, the NDP drew a large field because “we tried with strong effort”, vice chair U Aung Htway told The Myanmar Times.
Across Myanmar, 1171 constituencies are up for grabs. But it’s not, strictly speaking, a national election, as no votes will be cast in parts of Shan State: Four townships controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and one controlled by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) will have to wait still longer for the transition to democracy to reach them.
Elsewhere, the average number of candidates per constituency is 5.3. The most heavily contested constituency is the Amyotha Hluttaw seat No 11, representing Yangon, where 15 candidates will square off. Among the challengers is incumbent USDP MP and High Court lawyer U Tin Yu; U Aye Bo, who is responsible for the NLD’s school for disadvantaged children in Hlaing Tharyar; and the outspoken chair of the Myanmar National Congress, U Kaung Myint Htut.
The second-busiest game of musical chairs will be for the Kachin State Hluttaw seat for Myitkyina’s constituency No 2: A full 14 candidates will vie for this slot. Among them, Red Shan ethnic youth Sai Aung Myo, 27, says he expects to win and afterward will focus on issues concerning the Red Shan ethnicity’s identity and culture, which is gradually fading, he told The Myanmar Times. It’s an example of how many concerns, from the local to the regional to the national, are at play in the election.
The biggest party list, the NLD’s, sees names on the ballots in all but a handful of constituencies. The party has skipped areas in Wa region, Kokang region, Mong Tong and Mong La, where government control is unstable. More peacefully, the NLD will honour a longstanding agreement with Pu Chin Sian Thang in Teddim township, Chin State, stepping aside in that township to make way for him to lead the Zomi Congress for Democracy party to victory there. The party has not, however, made strategic deals with ethnic parties elsewhere, as some expected they would.
According to the UEC’s final list, the USDP’s total candidate slate totals 1134. According to the USDP list, however, the party will compete in all but 23 constituencies. When contacted by The Myanmar Times about the discrepancy, the UEC declined to comment. Areas in which the USDP will not compete include Yangon’s South Dagon for the Pyithu Hluttaw; 14 places in Shan State; and eight places in Kachin State. The USDP has also chosen not to contest against the Union Pa-O National Organization and the Lhaovo National Unity and Development Party (LNUDP), which suggests an alliance with these parties.
There are 23 constituencies contested by only the NLD and the USDP, making the ballot a pretty quick read for voters in those places. And in restive Kokang, the USDP faces competition only from the Shan State Kokang Democratic Party.
Aside from the all-female Women Party (Mon), formed of only women, the party with the highest percentage of women candidates is the National Democratic Force (NDF). Of the NDF’s over 270 candidates, more than 20 percent are women. While the NLD fixed selection criteria that prioritised women, it is fielding only 15pc women among its candidates. Lower still is the percentage of women among the ruling USDP’s candidate list: just 6.2pc.
Women’s candidacy generally has increased, but still remains low, and this is a sure sign that any women sitting as MPs in the new session will be out-voiced in the coming parliament. But will they have more pull than their predecessors? The outgoing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw comprised only 4pc women; in the Amyotha Hluttaw, or upper house, the rate was lower, just 1.8pc.
Identity politics has played a key role in the election already. Almost 50 candidates have so far been disqualified from running by the UEC. The rulings have proved controversial: In most cases the UEC said the candidates’ parents were not yet Myanmar citizens at the time of the candidates’ birth, as required by the election law, but these claims have been rejected as untrue by the candidates themselves. In other cases, some candidates fell afoul of the requirement to have lived only in Myanmar for the past 10 years.
In another wrinkle, two of the rejected candidates – U Shwe Maung of the USDP and Daw San San Myint of the New National Democracy Party – are also currently sitting MPs, meaning their candidacy was approved in the past. Both are Muslim, which some observers say has led to their being targeted, an accusation the UEC has also denied. Nonetheless, the majority of those disqualified have been either Muslim, from Rakhine State, or from other minority parties.
The disqualifications have drawn the ire of many, as have rules that parties, in state media messages, cannot criticise the military or the government, and that such messages will be censored ahead of time. The head of the UEC, U Tin Aye, has long been criticised by opposition members as being partial to the USDP and the military, having notably donned his former military uniform for Armed Force Day earlier this year. He denies all accusations of bias.
The military’s representatives in parliament – 25pc of seats – are not decided by the public, but its influence also spreads into the parties and their candidates. Of the four biggest parties – the NLD, the USDP, the NUP and the NDP – all have substantial ex-military representation.
The NLD is usually portrayed as being in opposition to the military, but many ex-soldiers joined the party in its early days. U Tin Oo, U Aung Gyi, U Aung Shwe (party chair before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) and U Lun Tin – former high-ranking military figures all – took the lead roles when the party started. Now, the party’s central executive committee (CEC) includes former soldier and sitting MP U Win Htein, while the chair of the central campaign committee for the 2015 election, U Tin Oo, is a former minister for defence.
In the USDP, it is no surprise that 42 out of 53 CEC current members, or 79pc, are retired military officials. Chief (until recently) among those making the switch in 2010 was Thura U Shwe Mann, a former general, who later became Pyithu Hluttaw Speaker. This time the party is fielding over 100 former high-ranking military officials as candidates, with Chief of the General Staff (Army, Navy and Air) General Hla Htay Win being the highest-ranking figure to shed his greens.
Just as the USDP was born from the junta, the NUP was born from the Burma Socialist Programme Party that preceded it, and was also founded by former military officials.
The NDP is led by former military officer U Nay Zin Latt and also fields a number of former military figures.
Last, but certainly not least, the election referee, the UEC, comprises retired military officials, including chair U Tin Aye.
Among the candidates, the oldest is likely to be Pu Chin Sian Thang, chair of the Zomi Congress for Democracy party, who is running for a Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Teddim township. When the election arrives, he’ll be 77 years and seven months old. He says, however, that he still feels fresh when it comes to working for the development of mountainous Chin State.
It’s not the first time Pu Chin Sian Thang has contested an election. He won his constituency in 1990, but never had a chance to sit in parliament because the results were rejected by the military. Since then, he’s been imprisoned 10 times and spent more than 10 years in jail for opposing the regime.
His 1990 victory, however, remains relevant: The biggest opposition party, the NLD, won’t contest Pu Chin Sian Thang’s constituency this year, due to a longstanding agreement dating to 1990. His is the only riding where the NLD is making way for ethnic parties in 2015.
In 2010, the oldest national election candidate was Pyithu Hluttaw MP U Maung Nyo. The Rakhine ethnic was 78 years when he ran, and was well-known in parliament for pushing to change the name of Kandar Mingala (Cantonment) Park in his constituency Sittwe back to its former name, U Ottama Park, after the monk and independence fighter. The oldest MP in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and now 83 years old, U Maung Nyo has announced plans to retire and has not registered for election.
Zigon constituency in Bago Region is playing host to a David-and-Goliath match-up. At 26, Ko Thurein Shwe is thought to be the youngest candidate, just a year clear of the required 25 years required to run. And the young gun – guest professor of sociology at the Myanmar Institute of Theology and an expert at the Institute for Political and Civic Engagement, or iPACE, a political growth program run by the American Center Yangon – has not been shy about picking his opposition: He’ll be facing off against no less than the current vice president, U Nyan Tun of the USDP.
“I was looking for the best rival. That’s why I chose this intense playing ground,” Ko Thurein Shwe told The Myanmar Times when asked if he had realised just who he was up against.
Ko Thurein Shwe had previously intended to run as an independent candidate in Kawhmu township, Yangon Region. That too was not just a stab on the map: He was looking to go toe-to-toe with NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, so he could debate the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on matters of policy. But when the NUP approached him to join, he found their suggestion of going up against the vice president too good to pass up.
“I’d like to show the capacity of our youth and that it is time to hand over duties to us. And I also want the voters to see a great competition,” he said. As Zigon is mostly farmland, his campaign agenda centres on farm affairs and education. He is also keen to raise the proportion of youth involved in politics.
With so many influential figures running, there are bound to be a few who have seen their profile overshadowed by other incidents. Among these is Daw Su Su Hlaing: Currently deputy minister of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, she found herself left exposed to the glaring light of media scrutiny when a photo posted by the Ministry of Information showed her being accompanied by an “invisible umbrella”. Someone evidently thought it might be bad optics to show a minder holding an umbrella for the deputy minister, but forgot to edit out the umbrella’s shadow on the pavement. Come November, Daw Su Su Hlaing will run as an independent candidate – apparently she’s keen to step out of the shadow of her former party, the USDP, once and for all.
Also running independent are current ministers for the President’s Office U Aung Min and U Soe Thein. They’ll compete for sparsely populated constituencies in Kayah State with only 4000 to 8000 voters, aiming to sit in the Amyotha Hluttaw. But they’ll have to defeat their old USDP colleagues to win: When Thura U Shwe Mann was chair of the USDP, he would not allow the two ministers to compete there, due to a chilly reception from locals. The decision was disputed by the USDP chair for Kayah, who was then fired from the party. The two ministers applied to the UEC as independents, but still had two days to resubmit their names under the USDP banner after U Shwe Mann’s ouster. The USDP did not make changes to its line-up, however, so whether there really is bad blood remains a mystery.
Another unusual aspect of the candidate list is that there are several areas in which the same party has fielded two candidates. The USDP has done so seven times; the NLD 13. NLD officials have said this is the mistake and they are trying to fix it, but there has been no comment from the USDP about their overlaps, nor from the UEC. Even Vice President U Nyan Tun’s playing ground of Zigon has another USDP candidate listed.
The big names
So you’ve declared your intention to run, sorted things out with your party (or decided to run solo), and the UEC has vetted and approved your candidacy. Time to get your name out there to the public? Well, it might not be that simple.
In total, 54 candidates – both male and female – are named “Win Myint”. Most are from the USDP, with the rest spread across eight different parties or independents. Other common names in this election are “Kyaw Tun”, with nine, and “Tin Oo”, with eight – the SNLD for instance is backing both Sai Tin Oo and Nan Tin Oo.
When voters mark their ballot November 8, they’ll need more to go on than name recognition alone.