| Hla-Hla Htay |
YANGON (AFP) – Residents of Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon went to the polls Saturday for the first municipal elections in six decades, with voters enthusiastic for change even though many knew little about the candidates or their policies.
The election is being closely watched as a test of the country’s democratic credentials ahead of a landmark nationwide poll slated for November next year, despite strict curbs on who could vote on Saturday and the limited power of the councillors they were electing.
For many the ballot for the Yangon City Development Committee, which closed on Saturday afternoon, was the first chance to vote under the country’s quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2011.
It was also a rare opportunity to have a say over the future of Myanmar’s biggest city, where residents grumble about runaway construction and soaring rents, worsening traffic, poor sanitation and weak pollution control.
“It’s very difficult to have big expectations as this is the first YCDC election for 60 years,” Khin Maung Tun, 50, a resident in Thaketa township told AFP. “But we came here to vote and show our spirit.”
Despite such enthusiasm, local media said turnout was low, although there were no official figures immediately available. Restrictions on who can vote enfranchised just 400,000 of the city’s several million residents, while other clauses have strictly controlled who can stand for the YCDC.
Just under 300 candidates, among them businessmen, retired civil servants and activists, are competing for 115 positions on the committee – although the top posts will remain largely appointed. Campaigns were muted – or non-existent – in a country where politicians are unused to wooing the electorate, although election officials said the ballot would be transparent, free and fair.
Despite the lack of intimacy with the candidates’ politics, many residents appeared determined to vote after years of repressed democratic aspirations under junta rule.
“I do not know anything about candidates. I just found out their names while voting,” Phone Maw Lynn, a resident in Sanchaung township told AFP after voting.
“I hope for some significant change by voting,” he said without revealing who he voted for.
While Saturday’s election marked a major step by the YCDC, which has not been chosen by popular ballot since 1949, analysts cautioned against reading too much into the vote.
Ahead of the ballot, critics said the poll was deeply flawed, citing the rule of just one person per household being allowed to vote, the narrow age restrictions for candidates and a ban on political parties from taking part.
Appointees will still outnumber elected figures on the city’s top council within the YCDC, which has major responsibilities over infrastructure, heritage and tax collection in Yangon.
“It may be free and fair. But because this election is free and fair, we can not assume the coming 2015 general election will be free and fair also,” said independent political analyst Yan Myo Thein.
The polls are only the second major vote since the 2010 general elections, which were marred by widespread accusations of cheating and the absence of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, which boycotted the election.