YANGON -- Hours after Myanmar's main opposition party objected to a proposal by the country's Union Election Commission to postpone a national poll scheduled for Nov. 8, the government changed tack and announced that the vote would go ahead as scheduled.
The suggestion to delay the poll was made by election commission chairman Tin Aye at an Oct. 13 meeting with several of Myanmar's main political parties, although no official postponement was announced nor any alternative election date given. Shortly after 8pm Myanmar time on Oct. 13 media run by Myanmar's army announced that the election will proceed on Nov. 8 as planned.
Win Htein, who represented the main opposition National League for Democracy at the meeting, said the election commission's aboutturn was baffling. "I don't know why they changed their minds," he told the NAR. "I think they believed that the public would be angry if they changed the date." The NLD had earlier opposed the proposed delay.
According to diplomats speaking off the record, the decision to proceed with the election as planned came after behind-the-scenes lobbying of the government by Western governments and international organizations, as well as concerns raised by senior officials close to President Thein Sein.
The election commission had earlier contended that the impact of August flooding and a continued threat of landslides in mountainous parts of Myanmar had set back preparations for voting in many areas of the country.
Large areas of central and western Myanmar were left under water after heavy monsoon rains earlier this year, with more than 100 people killed and 1.6 million left homeless by the floods.
No Than Kap, an election candidate from flood-hit Chin State, one of Myanmar's poorest regions, said continuing rains meant that more roads might become impassable by Nov. 8. "The roads are not paved, or well constructed, and there are many landslides. So the commission has to consider this when deciding whether to postpone or not," said No Than Kap, who is standing for the Chin Progressive Party.
In addition, widespread concerns have been raised about the validity of voter lists, amid claims that irregularities may affect up to half the 31 million eligible voters. Security concerns were also cited as a reason to delay voting in hundreds of village tracts in Shan and Kachin states, large ethnic areas in the country's north where there is still conflict between ethnic armed groups and the military.
For and against
Earlier on Oct. 13, Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party had supported the proposed poll delay as had the National Development Party and the Myanmar Farmers Development Party .
Officials at international organizations working on voter education and political party campaign training had also privately expressed support for a postponement. Some said the impact of the floods was a genuine concern in many areas -- due not only to flood-related chaos but also the inability of many voters in those areas to turn out to vote.
They also noted that the election commission was running out of time to print materials and sort out anomalies in voter lists. "The consequences of having a badly organized election could well be worse than having a late one -- in other words, there are legitimate reasons to delay because of flooding," said one of the officials.
Sentiment among investors, already anxious in the lead-up to the poll, could have also played a part in the election commission's reassessment. Several businesses operating in Myanmar warned that delays at this late stage could affect the credibility of the planned poll.
"It did look bad of course, particularly with the NLD seemingly objecting while USDP is 'supportive' -- and it was hard to believe any logistical reasons for a delay," said the head of one Yangon-based conglomerate. "So the only logical conclusion was that the USDP was rattled by indications it might lose badly, and wanted to buy more time -- although it was not clear what they could accomplish by delaying."
Nyantha Maw Lin, managing director for Myanmar of Vriens & Partners, a government relations consultancy, said a postponement might have made foreign investors wary, unless there was clear public support for a delay. "While the floods have no doubt been disruptive across large parts of Myanmar, the full impact on the electoral process had not been clearly communicated. Even then, there is doubt whether it [merited] a nationwide postponement," he said.
Several diplomats and other analysts noted that the proposed delay -- and suspicions that the ruling party or the powerful military wanted to buy time --might have worked in the NLD's favor by further undermining trust in the USDP. In 1990, a military government annulled an election victory by the NLD and put the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, now 70, under house arrest.
The election commission had earlier said that elections could not take place in parts of 28 townships scattered across five of the country's 14 regions, including in areas affected by continuing fighting between the Myanmar army and ethnic militias, despite the planned signing of a ceasefire agreement between the government and seven armed groups on Oct. 15.
Among the seven parties present at the election commission meeting was the National Democratic Force, formed by former NLD members after Suu Kyi -- then under house arrest -- boycotted Myanmar's 2010 elections. NDF chair Khin Maung Swe urged the commission to bear in mind the hefty financial costs of conducting an election campaign.
"The USDP has lots of money so any extended campaign will not be a problem for them. But for small parties it will be very tough if we have to keep campaigning past another month," Khin Maung Swe said before the election commission's U-turn.
The proposed delay came a month after the official campaign period started on Sept. 8, and just weeks ahead of Myanmar's first free and fair nationwide poll since 1990. The NLD is regarded as the most likely winner of the election, meaning that supporters would have most likely viewed any alteration of the election timetable with suspicion.
On the campaign trail
As the election commission was floating its postponement suggestion with party representatives in the capital, Naypyitaw, NLD candidates Nay Phone Latt, Shwe Hla Win, Myat Nyana Soe and Maung Maung Oo were on the campaign trail in Thingangyun in north-central Yangon.
Sheltered by umbrella-wielding supporters, the four plodded through the rain-sodden backstreets, treading between rapidly rising puddles and behind splashes raised by a speaker-laden lorry blaring jaunty ditties lauding the NLD.
Former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt, a candidate for Yangon's regional parliament, told the NAR: "We got a good reaction, in spite of the weather." But as news of the possible postponement filtered through, the mood changed. "There is not a strong reason to postpone the vote," Nay Phone Latt said
That sentiment was echoed by an activist from the flood-affected region. "Even if they wanted to change the election date because of the disaster, it should have been decided earlier," said Mai Thin Yu Mon of the Chin Human Rights Organization. "On balance it is good that it is going ahead," she said, reacting to the news that the vote will take place as planned on Nov. 8.