Myanmar election

Myanmar election: 30m voters head to the polls today

(Top) Special election police guarding a polling station where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be voting in Yangon. (Above) A man checking a voter list before advanced voting takes place at a polling station in Sittwe township of Rakhine stat
A woman helping her disabled father to fill out his ballot form during a door-to-door voting exercise for disabled people in Yangon yesterday.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
(Top) Special election police guarding a polling station where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be voting in Yangon. (Above) A man checking a voter list before advanced voting takes place at a polling station in Sittwe township of Rakhine stat
(Above) Special election police guarding a polling station where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be voting in Yangon. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
(Top) Special election police guarding a polling station where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be voting in Yangon. (Above) A man checking a voter list before advanced voting takes place at a polling station in Sittwe township of Rakhine stat
(Above) A man checking a voter list before advanced voting takes place at a polling station in Sittwe township of Rakhine state.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Suu Kyi's NLD expected to defeat ruling party in first truly multi-party poll since 1990, but may not get 67% of seats

Up to 30 million people will go to the polls today across sprawling, diverse Myanmar in what opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called "the most important election in the history of independent Burma".

The country paused for breath yesterday as most campaign banners came down in the one-day cool-off period. Yangon was almost unnaturally calm, with residents going about their business as on any normal weekend.

The election is the first genuinely inclusive multi-party poll since 1990. The one in 2010 took place under military rule, with Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest and her party boycotting, leaving the field to the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).  

Polling stations across the country will open at 6am today and close at 4pm. The first counts will start coming in around two to four hours afterwards. Trends may be known by late tonight, though remote areas may take far longer to report.

The arithmetic is complicated, but also simple. The election takes place within red lines defined by the military-written Constitution: While the total number of seats in Parliament is 664, the armed forces will have 25 per cent by appointment regardless of votes cast today.

Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) therefore needs to win 67 per cent of the 498 seats up for grabs - which would give it just over 50 per cent of the overall Parliament. That would put it in a strong position to nominate a candidate for president. If it falls short, it will have to seek alliances with ethnic minority parties.

The president will be chosen in a vote by an electoral college of sitting MPs. Thereafter, he or she will appoint a Cabinet. The process will take a few months. Until then, the incumbent, President Thein Sein, remains in office.

Ms Suu Kyi herself cannot be president because the Constitution bars anyone with foreign family connections from the office. Her late husband was a British citizen, and so are her two sons. The army can use its seats to block any attempts to change that clause.

There are no precedents for this election, and no available opinion polls. But what is certain is that the ruling USDP will see its footprint in Parliament shrink - the only question is by how much.

In a commentary on Thursday in the Wall Street Journal, Mr Soe Thane, Minister in the President's office, wrote: "Some independent polls, conducted informally by civil society organisations and research institutes, suggest that the opposition NLD will do better than the ruling USDP in central Myanmar, but not by the margins some believe. The race may be close."

He added: "The elections in ethnic-minority states will likely be dominated by local parties representing their own communities."

In an interview, Mr Richard Horsey, Yangon-based independent analyst and former UN official in Myanmar, said: "The NLD will be the biggest party by some way, but getting 67 per cent of contested seats is a high bar."

The poll takes place against a backdrop of more than a generation of sporadic but persistent internal conflict and decades of stifling military dictatorship lifted only in 2011.

Even today, there will be no election in seven constituencies in Shan state because of ongoing fighting between the Myanmar army and the Shan State Army (North).

The election is also taking place in a volatile atmosphere of rising Burman Buddhist nationalism, mostly directed against Myanmar's Muslim minority.

The Buddhist nationalist Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion has been openly suggesting that the NLD is pro-Muslim. Ms Suu Kyi has pragmatically skirted the issue.

In her campaign speeches, she has emphasised democratic reform and urged her supporters to "be brave" and turn out to vote for "real change".

The USDP counters with promises of continuing reform - and a veiled warning of instability if democratic change is too abrupt.

In an exercise unprecedented for Myanmar, several thousand observers will be at polling and counting stations across the country today, from the mist-cloaked mountains of Kachin to the low-lying plains of the Irrawaddy delta.

Critics have slammed the offensive by the army in Shan state; the fact that the election commission is chaired by a retired general who has made pro-USDP statements; voter list irregularities; and the disenfranchisement of many thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine state.

But the government has urged critics to focus on the upside - that Myanmar is having an election at all. It has also pledged to accept the vote results.

In a speech broadcast last Friday night, President Thein Sein said: "All political forces participating in the elections must also in good faith accept the results... I stress again that my government and (the army) will respect the results of the free and fair elections. New political arrangements will be jointly forged and implemented in accordance with the results."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline '30m voters head to polls today'. Print Edition | Subscribe