YANGON — Vote counting was underway throughout Myanmar on Sunday night after national elections — the country’s first openly contested poll in 25 years — took place in a relatively peaceful manner amid a mood of restrained excitement in many towns and villages. “We have had no reports of violence or major upsets — that could change but for now, it’s so nice to be able to say that,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia of Human Rights Watch, which fielded representatives in locations throughout Myanmar.
There were no charges of systematic manipulation — unlike in the previous 2010 national election — and some overcrowded polling centers outside Yangon stayed open beyond the official 4 p.m. closing time to enable all voters to cast their ballots.
Vote counting, which was set to run through Sunday night and into Monday, was underway after a large turnout in most cities, towns and many rural areas, with observer teams estimating that voter turnout could top 75%. Final results are not due to be announced until Nov. 29, though unofficial early trends in voting could be known early on Monday. The government’s election commission is set to hold regular briefings over the coming week as results are tabulated. The polls got off to a brisk start just after dawn on Sunday, with long queues of people outside voting centers in schools, fire stations and public buildings before they opened at 6 a.m.
Among those standing in line as the sun rose over Yangon was Tun Min Win. “I was happy with the voter registration and the election seems good,” he said, adding that he was voting for the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Later, President Thein Sein cast his ballot at Zebuthiri township in the capital, Naypyitaw, at around 11 a.m., two hours after Suu Kyi voted in Yangon’s Bahan township. The opposition leader is registered to vote in Bahan near her home, although her constituency is Kawhmu, about 60km southwest of the city.
In comments to local media on Sunday, the president reiterated his earlier pledges that he would accept the election outcome, even if the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party lost. “Whatever it is [the result], we have to accept our voters’ desire,” Thein Sein said.
In major towns and cities, as well as numerous villages, turnout appeared to be high, with people waiting hours to vote at numerous polling stations in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and commercial hub. Halfway through the day, an observer team from the European Union said the vote appeared so far to be a “credible electoral process.”
Suu Kyi, surrounded by supporters and met by cheering crowds, traveled to her Kawhmu constituency after voting, but returned to Yangon in the afternoon and was expected to speak some time on Sunday night at her party’s headquarters.
In Myanmar’s second-largest city Mandalay, polling stations showed an early lead for the USDP, although most political analysts have predicted a loss for the ruling party.
An estimated 30 million people were eligible to vote in what has been deemed Myanmar’s first free and fair election in 25 years, although around 1 million stateless Muslim Rohingya were not allowed to vote. Critics, mainly international, have voiced concerns that some Muslims were blocked from running as candidates — including one who was an incumbent parliamentarian in western Rakhine state.
Many others have voiced concerns about voter lists compiled by the government’s election commission, which were found to be riddled with flaws including omissions and deceased people.
Overall however there has been a pervasive sense of determination among even ordinary people to secure a free and fair vote. The last such election, in 1990, resulted in a landslide victory for Suu Kyi and the NLD, which prompted the junta to annul the results. This time, said one young woman voter in Yangon, “they will not steal the election from us.”
Aung Khin Thein, a 70-year-old volunteer poll monitor at a voting station in central Yangon, stood by as many Muslim minority voters filed in to cast their ballots. There had been “no problems,” he said, when asked about complaints over the voter list, which showed that about 950 people were due to vote there.
However, in Mandalay, a center for religious activism, there were signs of anti-Muslim sentiment aimed at the NLD, which has been a target for Buddhist extremists. Leaflets warning that a vote for the NLD was a vote for “Muslim domination” of Myanmar were scattered in key parts of the city ahead of the poll, NLD officials and Muslim community leaders told the Nikkei Asian Review.
One showed a digitally-altered image of Suu Kyi embracing a Muslim leader. Another leaflet described the party as the “Muslim peacock,” referring to the NLD symbol, and said a vote for the NLD would lead to a Muslim takeover of the country. Tin Maung, 60, a Muslim shopkeeper in Kyanayethazan township, said he was concerned about the rise of anti–Muslim sentiment in Mandalay over the past few years and its impact on voter sentiment in the city.
“At first I was a little scared there would be some problems, but when I got to the polling station I felt comfortable because there was a lot of security … This election is very important. That’s why I got here early. We want a good government, a clean government for our country,” he said.
Beyond smear campaigns, another concern raised by the NLD was about vote buying. The party issued a statement on Sunday afternoon saying it would seek legal redress over what it described as blatant vote buying — essentially what one NLD supporter claimed were tactics frequently used by the USDP of “bribing voters” with gifts and money.
Earlier, the national election commission dismissed the NLD’s complaint over alleged campaigning by Thein Sein. As president, Thein Sein is barred from political activities but in recent weeks has visited key parts of the country to talk about the achievements of his government among other topics. Accompanied by senior ministers and sometimes the military’s commander-in-chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, in many locations he has been met by USDP supporters clad in the party’s green and white colors and waving party flags.
However Min Aung Hlaing made a point on Sunday of telling local reporters after he cast his vote in the capital that the military will not interfere with the vote nor take control of the country if the vote does not go as it wants. “What I hope through this election is that we will have a result that can build a strong democratic system,” he said.
The real problem, however, will come days, or even weeks down the line if results in specific constituencies are disputed by one party or another, noted Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “We have a situation where the government’s Union Election Commission is investigator, judge and jury — all complaints are referred to the commission and an ad hoc committee deals with it — the commission then has the final decision … that’s a major shortcoming that could cause serious problems,” he noted.
Mixed ethnic picture
In ethnic areas the picture was mixed. In Taunggyi, the capital of Shan state in eastern Myanmar, polling stations were struggling to cope with long lines with some staying open past the official cutoff time of 4 p.m.
Nearly five hours after the polls opened, only around a fifth of registered voters in Taunggyi had marked their ballots. Tin Oo, the Taunggyi district election commission chair, said he would send out extra officials to the worst-affected voting stations to help speed up procedures. In addition, he said, voting stations may stay open until about 8 p.m., despite the official 4 p.m. closing time, to accommodate voters who were still waiting when the stations closed.
In Yangon, however, all voters were able to cast their ballots, although many queued for hours. By 2.30 p.m., many voting stations in the city were virtually empty except for their abundant staff.
In Kayin state, an area where ethnic Kayin parties were expected to do well in rural constituencies despite the NLD’s popularity in the main town Hpa’an, there was a large early turnout and most people had already voted by lunchtime, according to local observers.
In Pyin Oo Lwin, east of Mandalay, the former summer capital of British colonial Burma and home to Myanmar’s elite officer training school, the Defense Services Academy, many civilian voters expressed enthusiasm for the NLD despite a strong military presence in the town.
An election commission official at one polling station there said that turnout appeared very high and that expected voter-list problems had not materialized.
“Most people support us,” said the NLD’s Khin Maung Htay, insisting that the civilian vote would outweigh those connected with the sizable military population, which was expected to vote for the USDP.
“On the lists there are about 150,000 eligible voters in Pyin Oo Lwin,” he said. “When we have been canvassing in the villages, people have given us a really warm welcome, in comparison with other parties, so we think we have the people’s support.”
As polls closed, a thunderstorm hit Yangon — which did little to dampen the spirits of thousands of supporters who had rallied outside the NLD’s headquarters in Bahan township in the hope of glimpsing Suu Kyi.
But earlier in the day, under a hot morning sun near the Chinatown district, Nilar Tun, a recent medicine graduate, stood checking voting rules outside her polling station before casting her ballot.
“I just want to check up on the rules again, but I saw on the television already,” said Nilar Tun, who would not say who she was voting for. “What I will say is that many people want change,” she noted.
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.