Friday, August 18, 2017

NLD senses victory after large turnout in peaceful election

First and unofficial results reported late last night from some of the 40,000 polling stations across Myanmar led to celebrations in Yangon by supporters of the National League for Democracy, although the scale of the opposition party’s hoped-for victory may remain in doubt for days to come.

Vote counting is well underway at Lashio polling stations, Shan State. Photos: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar TimesVote counting is well underway at Lashio polling stations, Shan State. Photos: Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar Times

Voting went ahead peacefully. Numerous irregularities were reported across the country but first assessments by some of the 10,000 local and international observers monitoring the polls were generally positive. Election officials in many – but not all – places seemed flexible and eager to correct problems, such as inaccurate voting lists. Polling stations even broadcast their results on screens outside for the public to watch.

"We are here cheering because we are sure NLD won. For sure it won by 80 percent, a majority. We want democracy, no more dictatorship. Now it's better but not enough," said U Myo Thiha,a 38-year-old businessman in Yangon.

Nonetheless NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was conspicuously silent and stony-faced at her two public appearances in Yangon, to the disappointment of her fans celebrating outside the NLD headquarters.

As the night wore on, there were suddenly concerns at late arriving advance votes in some states, including Shan, Kachin and Kayin, which were overwhelmingly in favour of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. In Myitkyina almost all 15,698 advance votes were for a USDP candidate and were even one ballot paper more than names on the list.

Anxiety was also fuelled by a decision in Shan State capital Taunggyi, apparently on the orders of the Union Election Commission, to send results directly to the UEC in Nay Pyi Taw, bypassing the authorities at district and state levels.

Still, NLD spokesman U Win Htein was in confident mood in Yangon.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times, he said their unofficial results pointed to wins in almost all constituencies of Mandalay Region, and 70 percent of constituencies in Yangon, Magwe and Ayeyarwady.

Judging from first returns, the NLD was heading not just to solid wins in the Bamar-dominated heartlands of Myanmar but also in some urban centres in minority-populated states, such as Taunggyi and Lashio in Shan State.

Even in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, where several of its eight townships had been thought “safe” for recently retired generals and incumbent ministers, some NLD candidates were looking at an upset, according to first and incomplete returns.

Attention was soon turning to the military and whether it would accept an NLD victory, unlike in 1990 when Myanmar last held reasonably open elections, and the Tatmadaw rejected the NLD landslide and put its leader under house arrest for much of the next two decades.

Asked by reporters if he would accept the results if the NLD won, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief, replied that there was "no reason to deny [an NLD victory]. We must accept the people's choice.”

The military would not interfere with the vote, nor take control of the country if the vote did not go as it wishes, he reiterated after casting his own ballot in Nay Pyi Taw. President U Thein Sein, chair of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, made similar remarks.

The UEC, headed by ex-general U Tin Aye, said it would start issuing official results at 9am today, update every three hours and hold a daily press conference. It gave the schedule for a week ahead, an indication that results from remote areas will take days to be tallied.

Ethnic parties had been expected to poll well in their respective states, although at the risk of splitting the vote to the advantage of the two main national parties.

The scale of the NLD’s hoped-for victory remains crucial when parliament comes to vote in February 2016 for the next president who will then appoint a government.

With 25pc of seats allocated to the non-elected military, the NLD would need to win more than two-thirds of the elected seats in the two chambers of parliament to secure an overall absolute majority. However in a two-round voting system for president and two vice presidents, the NLD could secure its nomination for the top job with a simple majority.

Speaker Thura U Shwe Mann, who was ousted as chair of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in August, queued patiently in Ka Nyut Kwin ward, Pyu township to cast his vote. He has struggled to attract grassroots support and defeat there would likely end his own presidential ambitions in a possible alliance with the NLD.

Tensions were bubbling in Hlaing Thayar township in Yangon – the city’s largest with a population of over 600,000, including many migrant workers. As expected, many would-be voters could not find their names on voting lists.

Ma Kyi Kyi Soe cried as she spoke to The Myanmar Times about not being included on the voter list. "The whole family is missing from the voter list even though we have lived in Hlaing Tharyar for many years,” she said.

Vote counting in Mandalay took an unexpected twist. To cheers and boos from the watching public, electoral officials in a Mandalay Region township were counting votes one by one in public. The unusual counting method was adopted to allay fears that unqualified voters had been trucked in to rig the result.

Voting was also held in Laukkai, the main town in the conflict-hit Kokang region which has been under martial law since February.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were disenfranchised by the government earlier in the year, mostly in Rakhine State, but members of the Kaman Muslim minority, which is officially recognized as an ethnic group by the state, were voting.

The NLD appeared on course to win vital seats in southern Rakhine, thanks in part to Muslim support.

U Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, said he was amazed at the voters’ desire for political change. He expressed some concerns over irregularities, such as denying people their right to vote, but said it was possible that the NLD would win two-thirds of the elected seats in parliament. He said the party would then try to win the trust of some ethnic parties in forming a government as well as build relations with the USDP and the military.