In Burma's rare elections, fresh faced candidates run against the grain

Burma (Myanmar) goes to the polls on Nov. 7, offering its citizens a rare chance to defy its military rulers. Some believe it’s nothing more than a show designed to legitimize another dictatorial regime.

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    Pedestrians walk past a campaign billboard of Myanmar's military government backed Union Solidarity and Development Party on Oct. 27, in Yangon, Myanmar.
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Megaphone in hand, Yan Kyaw rounds the corner of another soot-blackened city block. Ahead of him, a gaggle of young volunteers in red T-shirts printed with their candidate’s symbol, a yellow lantern, pass out leaflets in shops and teashops. Others attach leaflets to the colored strings that dangle from apartment balconies, a combination of postbox and buzzer in a city starved of electricity.

Yan Kyaw, a lecturer running as an independent for parliament, speaks briefly into his megaphone, telling voters to cast their ballots freely and without fear. More faces peer over the balconies, and some begin to yank up their strings, eliciting smiles from the fresh-faced volunteers. “A good response today, very good,” says the aspiring lawmaker.

Burma (Myanmar) goes to the polls on Nov. 7, offering its citizens a rare chance to defy its military rulers. Some believe it’s nothing more than a show designed to legitimize another dictatorial regime. Western powers have heaped scorn on stifling restrictions that favor the junta’s political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), at the expense of the opposition.

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The biggest battle

For Yan Kyaw and hundreds of other candidates running against the junta’s choices, the biggest battle is against a combination of apathy, skepticism, and deep divisions within the opposition. The result could be an even bigger than expected victory for the USDP, which is led by Prime Minister Thein Sein, a recently retired general, and is stuffed with junta allies.

Each party has been allotted time on state television and allowed to advertise in private newspapers. But most lack the resources and reach of the USDP, which relies on government spending to bolster its campaign. In rural areas, government intimidation is common, say observers. But in cities like Rangoon, the former capital, opponents have a freer hand to win over voters by going door to door.

Still, opposition politics remains fractious, and leaders spend as much time attacking each other as lambasting the government’s failings. The most vicious infighting is within the former ranks of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by imprisoned Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which has boycotted the vote, while a breakaway group has registered a new party to contest the election.

Effect of a boycott?

It’s unclear what impact the NLD’s boycott may have on turnout. As the election law doesn’t specify any minimum vote a low turnout is likely to reward the USDP and another conservative party, the National Unity Party (NUP), say analysts. The government has declined to invite international monitors or foreign media for the election, the first in 20 years.

The NLD’s refusal to take part has left a varied field of opposition parties and independents, as well as ethnic-based parties. But few have the clout to challenge the USDP or NUP. Of 37 registered parties, only four are contesting more than 10 percent of 1,163 seats in national and local legislatures. The remaining 25 percent of seats are reserved for military officers under a constitution passed by a referendum in 2008.

For every politician who wants to run against the regime, there are others who reject the election as a dead-end road. “I don’t believe in these elections because they won’t be free or fair,” says Phyo Min Thein, a former political prisoner who formed a new party in May but later quit in protest at the election rules. His party is contesting the poll without him.

Push for reform

Opposition candidates argue that even if they are in a minority in parliament, they can scrutinize government policy and push for reforms. Under the constitution, the government’s budget must be passed by parliament, marking a break from the opaque accounting of the current junta.

“The government favors the USDP, while it suppresses the other parties. But we want to contest. Participating in this election is an important step,” says Nay Myo Wai, general secretary of Peace and Diversity Party.

Critics lament the failure of opposition figures to agree on a common strategy. A six-party alliance recently fractured over allegations of improper funding by a pro-junta donor. The grouping was already beset by an overlap of candidates in many constituencies, petty rivalries, and other problems.

Yan Kyaw, the independent candidate, says the squabbling is a distraction. “We don’t want to fight the democrats, we want to fight the other guys. That’s the real way,” he says.

Voters are torn between hope and cynicism. “I think the [opposition parties] can change our lives… we need better roads and electricity,” says a young woman who runs a small store in Rangoon and intends to go to the polls.

A businessman living the same neighborhood said he didn’t plan to vote. “I don’t believe any of the parties. I don’t think they will make a difference. In the parliament, they will turn into yes-men,” he says.

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