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Myanmar’s By-Elections: Another Step Forward

On 1 April, Myanmar held its first elections under the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government. These by-elections, targeting 19 seats in the national and state/regional assemblies, showcased another well-administered election that returned a wide range of political parties to represent their constituencies. The ruling NLD won 8 of the 12 seats at play in the National Assemblies and 1 of the 7 seats up for grabs in the state/regional assemblies. The other big winner in the elections was the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which captured 2 seats in the national assembly and 4 seats in the Shan State Assembly. The military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was the ruling party before the 2015 elections, won one seat at the National Assembly and one seat in the Shan State Assembly, including a seat in the ethnic minority Mon State, which it captured from the NLD.

Other parties which won seats included the Arakan National Party, whose party leader Aye Maung captured a seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw from the USDP in Rakhine State. In Kayah State, ethnic minority party the All Nationals’ Democracy Party (Kayah State) won a state legislature seat in the only constituency that the ruling NLD did not contest.

Factory workers in Hlaing Thaya line up to vote during their lunch break

A peaceful and stable process

The results in the by-elections build on the previous success of Myanmar’s 2015 elections with high voter turnout in most locations. Preliminary turnout figures show turnout as high as 70 percent in some locations, with most areas having turnout numbers in the 40-50 percent range, reflecting generally high levels of interest for a by-election. The exception to this trend was Yangon, where turnout levels were low, especially in densely populated Hlaing Thayar Township, where turnout barely exceeded 12 percent.

Voters also demonstrated a high level of competence in casting ballots, with relatively few invalid votes cast. The exception was in the townships of Kyethi and Mongshu in Shan State. Here voters were casting ballots for the first time in seven years after a period of instability, and high levels of invalid votes were recorded.

Preliminary statements from observer groups gave positive assessments of the overall election process. Executive director Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint from the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) noted:

“Generally the election process was peaceful and stable. There were no major problems that disrupted the elections.”

European Union observers congratulated the UEC for managing “smooth, professional and transparent by-elections” that were part of a “credible and competitive electoral process.” The Asian Network for Free Elections largely agreed with these assessments, noting that the UEC “did well.” Polling stations visited by DIPD generally demonstrated an orderly and transparent voting process that enabled voters to cast their vote in secret and allowed party/candidate polling agents to witness the counting process.

Proud voters in Hlaing Thaya show their inked fingers

Ethnic minority parties demonstrated both strength and weakness

While the elections will not have a significant effect on the balance of power in any of the assemblies (with the exception of Kayah State where the NLD has lost its majority), a few notable areas stand out in terms of continuity and trends of change. First, the NLD remains extremely popular, especially in the areas dominated by the majority Bamar ethnic group, winning landslide victories in Yangon, Bago, and Monywa. The NLD also held on to its Upper House seat in Chin State, an ethnic minority area, and its seat in Nyaungshwe, an ethnic minority area in Shan State. On this evidence, the popularity of the NLD remains very high, despite some modest shifts, as in the party’s loss in Kayah State (where the NLD failed to field a candidate) and in Mon State, where the NLD was defeated by the USDP.

Second, ethnic minority parties continue to demonstrate both strength and weakness. Ethnic minority parties easily captured some seats in ethnic minority regions, including Shan State’s Kyethi and Mongshu, as well as in Rakhine State and Kayah State.

However, ethnic minority parties performed relatively poorly in a number of other ethnic minority states including Chin State and Mon State, where the NLD and USDP continue to command the largest shares of voters.

Even in Shan State, where ethnic parties won a majority of seats up for grabs in the by-elections, the NLD and the USDP still captured seats in areas where ethnic parties were weak or divided. A number of observers predicted a swing away from NLD to ethnic parties during the by-elections, but evidence for this shift is mixed. The NLD lost its seat in Mon State, but the seat went to the USDP rather than to ethnic parties. The USDP also lost one seat in Rakhine State to the Rakhine nationalist ANP – Rakhine is the clearest case of a shift toward ethnic minority parties.

Government performances have an impact

Finally, the by-elections provide tentative evidence that government performance has an impact on voters’ behavior at the polls. In areas suffering from conflict, such as in Shan State, voters cast their support for an ethnic minority party promising them a voice. In Mon State, where a recent dispute over whether a bridge should be named after a national leader or given a Mon name, voters may have expressed their dissatisfaction with the NLD’s response to local demands. Rakhine State serves as a case study of how ethnic minority grievances can lead voters to support ethnic minority parties that campaign to address those grievances. Although these conclusions are still preliminary, they provide a modest indication that voters will unseat parties that fail to meet their expectations.

Polling officials display a ballot in Mongshu

Preparing for the by-elections

In the run-up to the by-elections, DIPD provided a range of support to parties and their candidates, including campaign training, party polling agent training and convening dialogues between parties and election commission representatives. Win Than, a USDP polling agent in Kyauktagga, Bago Region received training from DIPD that helped him understand his roles and responsibilities as a polling agent, and also the codes of conduct that observers and polling station members should follow.

SNLD’s Sai Win Aye described how SNLD’s polling agents in Mongshu were trained directly by DIPD and also shared updated information with other party polling agents. Sai Win Aye, who won the Lower House seat for Mongshu Township, also highlighted the importance of campaign training that helped prepare parties and their candidates for the by-elections.

Party and candidate agents, one of the major targets of DIPD’s assistance, were an important factor in the by-elections, serving as observers to prevent malpractice and fraud. According to a preliminary report of PACE, party/candidate agents were present at 86% of polling stations, including 94% of Yangon polling stations. Most of the observers were from leading parties NLD and USDP, but PACE also noted the presence of observers from ethnic minority parties in ethnic minority regions.

DIPD’s team members in Mongshu, for example, observed a very well-organized polling agent team for the SNLD in the constituency. While the level of competence of these party/candidate agents varied greatly—in one polling station in Yangon DIPD witnessed party observers carefully checking off voters on the voter list, whereas in other polling stations agents seemed to have little understanding of their role—the widespread presence of agents provided an important check against fraud and abuse on polling day.

A number of areas for reform still remain to consolidate the progress made in holding democratic elections in Myanmar. These include changes to constituency delimitation, candidate eligibility, election dispute resolution procedures, among others. The 1 April by-election, however, represents an important step in consolidating the holding of credible and transparent elections that broadly reflect the will of the voters. DIPD will continue to work with political parties and other stakeholders in the electoral process to support transparent and credible elections in 2020 and beyond.

A large crowd waits to vote at a polling station in Mongshu


More information

Read more about DIPD’s work in Myanmar, where we are part of the EU supported STEP Democracy Programme.

Contact DIPD’s Country Coordinator in Myanmar, Khin Thazin Myint:

Contact DIPD’s Senior Advisor, Hanne Lund Madsen:

DIPD’ polling agents training activities for by-election

In advance of Myanmar’s 1 April by-elections, the first test of elections under the NLD government, parties are watching to make sure that the elections are conducted in a credible and transparent way. To this end, parties are their organizing teams of polling agents to observe the by-elections.

In support of parties’ efforts to observe the by-elections, DIPD’s Myanmar Multiparty Democracy Programme replicated its 2015 political party polling agent training sessions, targeting party polling agents in Shan State, Chin State, Yangon Region and Bago Region. During February and March, DIPD used interactive and innovative training methods to give party polling agents practical and hands on experience in the key elements of election observation. A total of 258 participants learned about the roles and responsibilities of party polling agents, the detailed steps of polling day processes and how to monitor them, and identified possible irregularities in the elections. “This training is good opportunity for me; in this training I learnt election processes, voting procedures, and rules and regulations through interactive exercises…[there are not a lot of such opportunities] in rural areas like Chin State”, according to Van Thawng from Nga Phyne Thae Village, Htantlang, Chin State, representing the NLD.

MMDP Polling Agent Training ahead of Myanmar by-elections in March 2017.

On the second day of each training session, DIPD also invited chairpersons and other representatives of the Electoral Commission, which allowed participants a useful opportunity to clarify important information regarding election and their roles as polling agents, and raise any questions or concerns for response by the electoral officials. “It’s very rare chance to meet and hold interactive discussion with the UEC sub-commissioner. I was able to clarify my confusion of some information which was released by the UEC,” reflected U Myo Naing Oo from the Akha National Development Party, Kengtung, Shan State.

U Than Lwin Mying, the secretary of Shan regional UEC, provides valuable inputs.

According to U Ye Myint, the Chairperson of the Yangon Division Election Commision, “We welcome DIPD doing polling agents trainings and supporting with effective courses and information for political parties before by-election. This kind of political party capacity support is necessary for our country during its democracy transition.” DIPD will continue to support parties’ participation in the electoral process in Myanmar, including as party polling agents, in the run-up to the 2020 general elections.

All smiles at the MMDP Polling Agent Training.

More information

Read more about DIPD’s engagement in Myanmar.

Contact DIPD’s Country Coordinator in Myanmar, Khin Thazin Myint:

Contact DIPD’s Senior Advisor, Hanne Lund Madsen:

New Director in Nepal

In January this year, Rasmus Helveg Petersen became the new Director for DIPD, succeeding Bjørn Førde who had retired in December 2016. The new Director visited Nepal from 15th March to 20th March mainly to meet with the local partners and to understand the overall situation of the country.


The new Director met the Steering Committee members of the Joint Mechanism for Political Party Strengthening (JOMPOPS) jointly. The SC members welcomed the new Director and informed him about the ongoing activities of the platform. Appreciating collaboration among JOMPOPS members, Mr. Petersen committed continued support to the platform. He also met with other members of the JOMPOPS parties to learn about the key political issues of Nepal.

Similarly, Mr. Petersen met with the Chief Election Commissioner of Nepal. The Chief Election Commissioner updated him about the preparations of the local elections planned for 14 May 2017. He also thanked DIPD for supporting the Commission on training women candidates at the local level. Apart from the Election Commission, Mr. Petersen met with the representatives of the Danish Embassy and UN Women. All these meetings aimed to foster good relations with each other.

One of the JOMPOPS members also took DIPD Director to visit the earthquake-damaged sites.  The massive earthquake in Nepal in April 2015 had severely destroyed many buildings and old temples and monuments of Nepal besides taking lives of thousands of Nepalese people. The reconstruction process has not yet been complete owing to lack of necessary political collaboration. Interestingly, the JOMPOPS member who coordinated the visit of DIPD Director to the damaged sites has been recently appointed as the Chair of the monitoring committee of the earthquake reconstruction work in the Parliament.

Rasmus Helveg Petersen, during his first visit to Nepal as Director of DIPD.

Local Party Tour

On invitation of JOMPOPS member parties, the Director visited local party offices of two JOMPOPS parties.  Strengthening political parties at the local level has been a key theme of DIPD’s engagement in Nepal. Visiting party offices at the local level gave an opportunity to the new Director to observe their local organizational structure as well as to learn about their regular functioning.

In one of the local party offices, the Director also interacted with the members of marginalized communities such as women, dalits, and Muslims who had gathered in large numbers.  One of these participants also asked the Director to share about the Danish experience on addressing the issues of equal representation of women in politics.

The JOMPOPS Steering Committee members from all the six parties had accompanied the Director during these local party tours. And this can be considered as a significant achievement for the platform. Generally, it’s not common for politicians from other parties to attend internal party programmes of another party in Nepal.  A few JOMPOPS Steering Committee members also felt awkward in the beginning, not sure if they should be part of the multiparty delegation.

Later on, they decided to go ahead with this expressing their commitment to the multiparty spirit. As one of the Steering Committee members Jitendra Sonal from the Terai Madhesh Democratic party put it, “If we have decided to be part of the multiparty platform then we should have an open attitude towards participation in such multiparty programmes.”

The local party members were clearly impressed by the presence of such influential leaders from different parties together in a programme. They expressed that such collaboration should translate at the local level as well.

Rasmus Helveg Petersen during his first visit to Nepal as Director of DIPD.

Outcome of the Mission

During the visit of the new Director, the political atmosphere in Nepal was quite tense. This tension was triggered particularly by the death of five people in Saptari district, when police opened fire on 6 March 2017 at the Madhesi agitators trying to disrupt the ongoing campaign of the opposition UML party.

This incident resulted in more bitterness between the Madhesi Morcha (a joint alliance of Madhesi parties which also includes two JOMPOPS parties) and the three largest parties of Nepal. The Madhesi Morcha had demanded the passage of the Constitutional Amendment bill as a condition for participating in the local elections. The bill was not passed mainly due to resistance from the opposition UML party.

Therefore, supporters from the Morcha had tried to disrupt the UML’s campaign in the Terai area. Against this uneasy background, killing of Morcha supporters by the government inflamed the ongoing political tension especially by further angering the Morcha members.

Despite this difficult situation, all JOMPOPS members remained committed to multiparty dialogue and participated in the joint events during DIPD Director’s visit to Nepal. Undoubtedly, there was some hesitation and uneasiness but the JOMPOPS members nonetheless could rise above them. One of the Steering Committee members from the Madhesi party in JOMPOPS had shared:

There’s a huge outrage among Madhesi people against the government due to the recent incident.  If they see us sitting together with the members of the government parties then that could be perceived wrongly by the people with implications on our votes during the elections.  Yet we participate in the multiparty platform because of our commitment to multiparty dialogue and collaboration.”

This continued collaboration even during tough political times can be considered as one of the significant outcomes of DIPD Director’s visit to Nepal. Even in such difficult political times, his visit could bring all the JOMPOPS parties together. And this opportunity also gave them space to understand each other and to informally explore solutions to mitigate the rising political differences.

Overall, the mission of DIPD Director can be considered as a success because he could reinforce trust with the local partners that has been the key pillar of DIPD’s engagement in Nepal.

More information

Read more about DIPD’s engagment in Nepal.

Contact Senior Advisor at DIPD, Hanne Lund Madsen: