Taken from Myanmar Times

Across Myanmar there is a sense of excitement for Sunday’s polls. Old and young, Bamar or ethnic minority, Union Solidarity and Development Party or National League for Democracy or other supporter, this election has already fostered a sense of inclusion and national pride that extends the sense of optimism that has been building in recent years. This is in spite of the concerns raised about the electoral process and uncertainty of the post-election environment. No matter who wins, this election has had a meaningful impact on ordinary people. It has reaffirmed that Myanmar voices matter.

A Union Election Commission stamp sits on a ballot paper displaying the names of candidates at a polling station on the outskirts of Yangon on October 29. Photo: AFPA Union Election Commission stamp sits on a ballot paper displaying the names of candidates at a polling station on the outskirts of Yangon on October 29. Photo: AFP

As the polls approach, voters have to make some important decisions. The outcome of these will shape the results.

Voter turnout: Foremost among these questions is whether to vote. Some will have this decision made for them, as they may not be on the voting list. Others will be too far away to get to their polling station. Yet, others will have to decide whether this election is important enough for their involvement. Surveys suggest that despite the high official numbers, voting did not exceed an average of 60 percent in the 2010 polls. Voting was lower in ethnic minority, urban and Nargis-affected areas. In this election voter turnout should be higher, reaching 70pc to 80pc is some areas. While deeply suspicious of the electoral process, voters across Myanmar indicate they will embrace the opportunity to shape their own future in large numbers.

Leader versus party versus candidate: Voters have had to consider multiple factors in casting their ballots: support for a particular leader, the party platform and the character of the local candidate. The focus of the 2015 campaign – and the campaign strategies of the two dominant parties, the NLD and the USDP – has been on leadership affinity. This has tapped into the hierarchical political culture of Myanmar and simplified messaging to voters in an environment with comparatively low levels of political knowledge. This is not to dismiss other considerations. Party identity will matter for some voters, especially where ethnic parties are strong. For some voters, it will be about putting a specific person into office. Candidates will particularly matter in less-populated areas, as they are usually more known to voters, or where there are incumbents or high-profile leaders running. Of all the factors cited by voters, the pull of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been the most significant in shaping voting preferences.

National versus local: Most of the media coverage has focused on the national picture, with the messages of dominant parties the NLD and the USDP – “real change” and “continued reform”, respectively – centre stage. Meanwhile the economy, the main concern of voters, has received minimal attention in the campaign, as policies and programs have been largely absent. Local issues such as land grabbing, service delivery and local development have similarly not got the same level of attention. The USDP campaign has placed the most attention on local development, with frequent promises of better roads and conditions in communities. For the largely rural electorate, the local experience is being primarily framed in a national lens. Farmers highlight the hope of moving out of poverty, young people point to improvements in education for more opportunities and retired pensioners speak of the promise of a better future for their grandchildren.

Ethnic community versus Myanmar nation: Where local communities have keenly mattered is in ethnic minority areas. The level of interest and electoral engagement in these areas is noticeably lower than in Bamar-majority areas, as there is less clarity in how the elections will address long-standing concerns regarding discrimination and conflict. Ethnic minority voters consistently highlight the desire to vote for a member of their own community. They have more choices than in 2010. In many areas the NLD and the USDP are fielding ethnic candidates to compete with ethnic minority parties. There are now also more ethnic minority options, as many of the parties have split, new actors have come onto the scene and more independent candidates are running. Ethnic minority voters appear torn in their loyalties, and in some cases speak of confusion in navigating the choices. In this pivotal election, they have a difficult decision to make as to which party or candidate will best represent their interests.

Every seat won by a national party will shape the final tally. As such the dominant national parties are competing hard for seats in all minority states. The stakes go beyond the national seat count. Given that state and regional governments have become more important, and have the potential to increase in significance after the polls with promised decentralisation and dialogue, the nature of representation will be decisive in shaping trajectories in resource management, armed conflict and the peace process.

Ethnic minority voters are weighing these difficult choices, balancing competing interests. The NLD has the potential to pick up seats in ethnic minority areas, cutting into the advantage the USDP held in these areas and the home ground of ethnic minority parties.

Religious institutions versus religious values: The type of ethnic representation extends beyond ethnic minority states. If there has been one issue that has been associated with the campaign, it has been the role of religion. Media attention has concentrated on the worrying trends of religious intolerance, the prominent role played by religious institutions such Ma Ba Tha (also known as the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion), and the exclusion of Muslims as both voters and candidates. These issues are particularly playing out in key battlegrounds such as Aye-yarwady Region, where religious nationalists in Ma Ba Tha have concentrated their divisive efforts, and Rakhine State, where large number of voters have been disenfranchised. High levels of support for non-secular government and anti-Muslim sentiments persist. What has not been adequately noted is that many voters place a high premium on strengthening democracy and are uncomfortable with intolerance and personal attacks. Many do not see these exclusionary values in line with their faith. As the vitriol has escalated, the results on November 8 have the potential to reveal a backlash against the negative campaigning.

The silent majority will speak out on polling day. While voters have the challenge of navigating decisions, the direction is one of empowerment and change, with optimism and hope. The advantage lies with the party that has best tapped into these sentiments – with the NLD in the strongest position. The outcome, however, will as much rest with the decision of the leaders themselves to respect the process and results, and work together to channel the fighting spirit of the election into meaningful outcomes for Myanmar.