Myanmar’s Yangon city votes for first time in 60 years

For many, the ballot for the Yangon City Development Committee, which closed on Saturday afternoon, was the first chance to vote under the country’s quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2011.
A man casts his vote during a municipal election at a polling station in Dala township in Yangon, Myanmar, on December 27, 2014. Khin Maung Win/AP Photo
A man casts his vote during a municipal election at a polling station in Dala township in Yangon, Myanmar, on December 27, 2014. Khin Maung Win/AP Photo

YANGON // Residents of Myanmar’s Yangon city went to the polls on Saturday for the first municipal elections in six decades.

The election in Myanmar’s biggest city is being closely watched as a test of the country’s democratic credentials ahead of a landmark nationwide poll scheduled for November next year. This is despite strict curbs on who could vote in Saturday’s election, and the limited power of the councillors being elected.

For many, the ballot for the Yangon City Development Committee, which closed on Saturday afternoon, was the first chance to vote under the country’s quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2011.

It was also a rare opportunity to have a say over the future of the country’s commercial hub, where residents grumble about runaway construction and soaring rents, worsening traffic, and poor sanitation and weak pollution control.

“It’s very difficult to have big expectations as this is the first YCDC election for 60 years,” said 50-year-old Khin Maung Tun, a resident in Thaketa township. “But we came here to vote and show our spirit.”

Despite the historic nature of the vote, local media said turnout was low, although there were no official figures immediately available.

Voting restrictions meant just 400,000 of the city’s several million residents were eligible to vote. Other clauses have strictly controlled who can stand for the YCDC.

Just under 300 candidates, including businessmen, retired civil servants and activists, are competing for 115 positions on the committee — although the top posts will remain largely appointed.

Campaigns were muted or, in some cases, even non-existent in a country where politicians are unused to wooing voters, but election officials said the ballot would be transparent, free and fair.

Despite a lack of knowledge surrounding the candidates’ policies however, many residents appeared determined to vote after years of repression under junta rule.

“I do not know anything about candidates. I just found out their names while voting,” said Phone Maw Lynn, a resident in Sanchaung township.

“I hope for some significant change by voting,” he added, without revealing who he voted for.

While Saturday’s election marked a major step by the YCDC, which has not been chosen by popular ballot since 1949, analysts cautioned against reading too much into the vote.

Ahead of the vote, critics said the poll was deeply flawed, citing the rule of just one person per household being allowed to vote, the narrow age restrictions for candidates and a ban on political parties from taking part.

Appointees will still outnumber elected figures on the city’s top council within the YCDC, which has major responsibilities over infrastructure, heritage and tax collection in Yangon.

“It may be free and fair. But because this election is free and fair, we cannot assume the coming 2015 general election will be free and fair also,” said independent political analyst Yan Myo Thein.

The polls are only the second major vote in Myanmar since the 2010 general elections, which were marred by widespread accusations of cheating and the absence of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, which boycotted the vote.

By-elections in 2012 held in a handful of constituencies across the country were considered much freer, and allowed the veteran democracy campaigner Ms Suu Kyi to enter parliament for the first time.

She remains barred from running for president under the current constitution, however, although her National League for Democracy party is pressing hard for an amendment.

The NLD is expected to sweep next year’s national poll, following up on its 2012 success.

* Agence France-Presse

Published: December 27, 2014 04:00 AM

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