YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar’s main city is poised to go to the polls Saturday for the first municipal vote in six decades, but observers warn the process is riddled with flaws and could cast a shadow over crucial 2015 general elections.
For many the ballot in Yangon, home to more than five million people, will offer the first taste of voting under the country’s quasi-civilian government and a rare chance to steer the direction of its biggest commercial hub.
But there are fears the election for the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), which comes just months before next year’s landmark vote in the former junta-ruled nation, is falling far short of democratic norms with strict curbs on who can vote, as well as who can stand, among the clauses causing concern.
“It will be unfair, but I am taking part anyway,” said Win Cho, a political activist who registered to stand in the city’s western district just days after being released from a jail term for protesting without permission.
“If we do not take part, we can’t do anything for the people,” he told AFP.
The polls mark only the second major vote since 2010 general elections, which were marred by widespread accusations of cheating and the absence of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition.
A 2012 by-election held in a handful of constituencies across the country was considered much freer and allowed the veteran democracy campaigner to enter parliament for the first time.
These polls “represent a measuring stick as to how genuinely democratic – or not – Myanmar is becoming”, said Yangon-based political analyst Susanne Kempel.
But rules governing this latest ballot “fall short of international standards for democratic, free and fair elections”, she said.
Voting has been limited to one person per household – meaning only around 400,000 people can cast a ballot – while narrow age restrictions for candidates together with a ban on political parties taking part is viewed as deeply problematic.
Under the rules appointed figures will also outnumber elected ones at the city’s top council within the YCDC, which has major responsibilities over infrastructure, heritage and tax collection in Yangon.
But this still marks an improvement for the body, which has not been chosen by popular ballot since 1949.
Regional poll regulators running Saturday’s election defended their handling of the process.
“Candidates who will get the most votes will win. So you cannot say the voting system is not fair,” the city’s election chairman Tin Aye told AFP.
In its early years Myanmar’s reformist government was lauded for freeing political prisoners and allowing Suu Kyi to become an MP, moves that saw most international sanctions lifted.
But the Nobel laureate has recently warned that reforms were “stalling” while activists have raised increasing concerns over the arrests of journalists and protesters.
Suu Kyi’s party is widely expected to win the general election due in October or November next year, if it is free and fair, and a president will then be selected by parliament.
But she is ineligible for the role as a constitutional clause bans those with a foreign spouse or children – her two sons are British, as was her late husband.
Appetite for a greater say in how Yangon is run is growing in some quarters of the metropolis, which is rapidly transforming as the country sees a flood of foreign investment.
Decaying infrastructure, worsening traffic, runaway property prices and rapid construction – often at the expense of the colonial-era buildings – are vexing the denizens of Yangon.
An open letter by the Association of Myanmar Architects recently decried authorities’ handling of rampant construction in the city.
“If the situation is not controlled quickly, we will not be able to solve the problems created for the next 50 years,” it warned.
But local people approached by AFP expressed little enthusiasm for the election – despite the emergence in the last few weeks of small posters announcing the poll as well as the odd pick-up truck cruising the streets playing songs to encourage people to vote.
“I don’t know who I should vote for, so I don’t think I will be voting,” said Than Than Nyunt from her streetside stall selling betel nut.
She complained that leaflets for local candidates were simply profiles of individuals.
“They didn’t say anything about what they would do for us if they are elected,” she said.