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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:

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