YANGON – Vote counting proceeded throughout Myanmar on Sunday night after a national election that both international and domestic observers described as largely peaceful. Although official results will trickle out from the government-backed election commission over the coming week, the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, within hours of the polls claimed big wins in Yangon and the Ayeyarwady delta, the two most populous of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions, and a string of victories elsewhere.
Party elder Tin Oo, a former general-turned-democrat and a confidante of Suu Kyi, told a crowd of several thousand jubilant supporters outside the party’s Yangon headquarters on Sunday night that the NLD could not call the overall result. He drew loud roars, however, when he thundered: “All I can say is that the NLD is in a very good position.”
On the perpetually traffic-clogged road outside the NLD office, several thousand red-clad supporters danced and cheered into the night as a giant screen relayed images of vote-counting over the state-run TV channel. Even so, some supporters expressed disappointment that “the Lady,” as Suu Kyi is known, did not address the gathering as anticipated.
Sein Ho, a father of four living in Yangon’s Ahlone district, said he had brought his family to the NLD headquarters in the expectation of news that the party had won the election and would form a government.
“We hope this party can make the country better,” Sein Ho said. “We think the NLD can win.”
The final official tally is not due until later in November, although the government’s Union Election Commission will start announcing official results on a rolling basis from early Monday, Nov. 9. In terms of the big trends, a clearer picture of the overall outcome is likely to emerge as early as Tuesday.
By the time voting ended at 4 p.m. on Sunday, however, many observers, diplomats and political analysts had already praised the poll as relatively peaceful and free of overt manipulation — unlike the 2010 election which was widely criticized as flawed.
The head of the European Union’s election monitoring team, Alexander Lambsdorff, said on Sunday afternoon that the team – which fielded 150 or so observers throughout the country — had “not seen signs of cheating.”
But he warned that risks remained in the transportation and counting of the ballots, among other procedures. The EU team, which also includes some non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Canada, is due to present its preliminary assessment on Tuesday in Yangon.
The NLD, which fielded more candidates than any other party, including the ruling USDP, bases its numbers on tallies of ongoing counts at some of the more than 40,000 polling stations nationwide. The counts are being closely followed by the NLD’s nationwide membership.
Zaw Zaw Aung, a 38-year-old voter at a polling station close to Yangon’s port area, said he too had opted for the NLD. Summing up what appeared to be the national mood, he said, “We want change.”
In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, roughly 1,000 people crowded into the narrow lanes around the city’s NLD office, some having journeyed several hours to participate in loud cheering as vote counts appeared on two giant screens — information that suggested the NLD was faring well in that part of Myanmar.
However, in the central town of Meiktila, the site of anti-Muslim violence in 2013, there were more public signs of support for the USDP.
The election has pitted the NLD’s mantra of change against the USDP’s claims that it could better manage the country’s newly opened economy, which languished for years under Western sanctions before the military junta staged elections in late 2010. That poll, controversial as it was, paved the way for the quasi-civilian government led by former general Thein Sein in 2011.
Thein Sein inherited responsibility for an economy that had stagnated under military rule and become dependent on natural resource exports, ties with neighboring China and so-called “cronies,” or businessmen with close links to the army. The majority of people endured hardship and pitiful earnings, with only a quarter of the population having access to electricity.
That legacy of mismanagement has likely counted against the USDP in voters’ minds, even if investment has quadrupled and the economy has grown at an average annual rate of 7% since 2011. Myanmar this year is projected by the Asian Development Bank and other institutions to reach about 8.3% annual growth.
In many eyes, the 2015 election is remarkable for its evident freedom but is unfair due to peculiarities of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, which provides for automatic allocation of three cabinet posts and a quarter of all parliamentary seats to the military. The charter also bars Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner, from the presidency due to restrictions against nationals with foreign spouses and children. Her late husband and two children are British.
The skewed nature of the parliamentary system means that even to win a simple majority, the NLD needs to secure just over two-thirds of the contested seats — that is, excluding the 25% military allocation — while the USDP needs only around a third of seats thanks to its close ties to the military bloc.
The USDP-military alliance has prompted widespread anxiety about the military’s potential response to an NLD victory. But after casting his vote in the capital, Myanmar’s powerful army chief said his troops would respect the voice of the electorate.
“Just as the winner accepts the result, so should the loser,” Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told local reporters. He also reassured the public that the military would not seize power even if the vote did not go the way it wished.
Many people feel it is time for the military to make way for a fresh force. “The current government is doing a good job, but we need better,” said Sein Ho.
The concern before the vote was that the USDP and the military would try to cheat, and undermine a possible repeat of the NLD’s 1990 election landslide which was annulled by the junta. But even if the NLD wins big, the army, with its 25% allocation of parliament seats, will hold enough power to veto major constitutional change. This includes allowing Suu Kyi to be a presidential nominee under the country’s college-style system.
In terms of poll concerns, voters in several regions — including in Yangon’s main garment factory district — were angered by their omission from voter lists.
The real concern, however, will come days or possibly weeks after the election, over disputed poll results, according to Phil Robertson of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which sent informal observers to locations around the country.
“You have a situation where the UEC is investigator, judge and jury for any election complaint, because it appoints the three-person panel to handle each complaint, and then has the final say in any appeal of that panel’s decision,” noted Robertson.
“So there is no independence, no impartial external or judicial review — and that’s a major shortcoming that could cause serious problems if opaque decisions frustrate the high expectations the elections have generated.”
Indeed, many observers will be closely watching developments this week. “The credibility of the election now depends on what happens next when the poll stations close,” Chit Win, a Myanmar expert and scholar at the Australian National University, told the NAR. “Electoral legitimacy is a prerequisite for a successful transition — regardless of who wins.”
About 40,000 police were deployed around the vast country — the size of England and France combined with rugged mountains and dense jungles — while around 11,000 local and foreign electoral observers were given access to polling centers.
But in Shan State, the biggest of Myanmar’s seven ethnically demarcated regions, long queues and inadequate polling facilities in the state capital of Taunggyi meant many voters were still waiting in line as the 4 p.m. deadline approached. Officials, following UEC guidelines, shut station gates but allowed voters waiting inside to cast their ballot.
Early results from a few polling stations suggested a strong performance for the NLD, but counting even in the main centers was going into Monday at many places.
In the early evening, concerns were raised when the UEC district chairman U Tin Oo said his office had received a “last-minute” instruction from UEC headquarters that officials directing the township level vote count should send results directly to the commission’s headquarters in the capital Naypyitaw, bypassing district level offices where the count was scheduled to be tallied.
While the change was clearly aimed at saving time, local candidates and some parties objected to the move, noting that it denied them the chance to directly vet the counting.
Elsewhere there were localized complaints of cheating, with the NLD alleging vote-buying in rural areas south of Yangon. In another case that raised anxiety levels among NLD supporters, late-arriving army ballots to the election commission office in Taunggyi prompted one Shan man watching the count to say: “It is the Lion doing this,” using a nickname for the Myanmar military.
Early indications of a strong NLD performance, however, did not seem to unnerve some cabinet members. “Winners are happy and losers, let’s smile — the elections are over,” Information Minister U Ye Htut wrote on his Facebook page.
“Leave the differences we have in the pre-election period all behind and unanimously, let’s walk forward,” he urged.
Reported by Asia regional correspondent Simon Roughneen, chief editor Gwen Robinson and contributing writers Joe Freeman in Yangon, Sebastian Strangio in Mandalay, Fiona MacGregor in Taunggyi and Hpa’an, and Simon Lewis in Pyin Oo Lwin.Show