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Politics

Myanmar election race kicks off despite ban on big rallies

Coronavirus fears force Suu Kyi to cancel campaign trip on first day

A supporter in Yangon holds a flag of the ruling party, National League for Democracy, September 6. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

YANGON -- Election campaigns in Myanmar officially started on Tuesday and will end on Nov. 6, two days before the vote, as the country approaches its first democraticelection since 2015.

The election will put 498 seats up for grabs in the 664-seat bicameral Union Parliament, in which 25% of the seats are constitutionally reserved for appointed military representatives. Candidates receiving the most votes in their respective constituencies win.

Of the 75% the seats being contested, Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy party has to win more than two-thirds in order to retain a majority in parliament. The party won in a landslide in the 2015 general election, securing 80% of the seats.

However, the political landscape has significantly changed since then, well after the military junta ceded power to civilian authorities in 2011.

This year, the NLD is being challengednot only by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party -- the largest opposition party -- and ethnic minority parties,but also new parties such as the People's Pioneer Party, People's Party and the Union Betterment Party.

The newcomers were founded by those formerly close to Aung San Suu Kyi, such as the PPP, which was established in October by Thet Thet Khine, a lawmaker who left the NLD.

Suu Kyi's NLD also has to compete with former ally Ko Ko Gyi and his PP. Ko Ko Gyi was a student leader for democracy decades ago and a major supporter of Suu Kyi during the transition to democracy.

The UBP is led by Shwe Mann, a former speaker of the parliament and also a previous Suu Kyi ally.

Campaigns kicked off amid reports of rising coronavirus cases, causing problems for all parties.

The Ministry of Health and Sports announced that campaigns need to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines, stipulating that attendees at events not exceed 50 people. Moreover, the Union Election Commission said campaigning will not be allowed in places under stay-at-home orders, where most of the new coronavirus cases have emerged. Seven townships in Yangon and all of Rakhine State are under semi-lockdowns.

This has prompted Suu Kyi to cancel her first campaign trip scheduled for Tuesday, as per advice from the health minister. She had planned to visit her constituency in Kawhmu Township on the outskirts of Yangon.

Instead, on Tuesday, she posted a video on Facebook and said: "to continue with our peace, development and prosperity, vote for us and for the truth of democracy."

Supporters of the National League for Democracy party prepare for the campaign in Yangon on Sept. 8. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

On Saturday, she requested supporters to show solidarity by flying NLD party flags at home or on their vehicles.

NLD senior official Monywa Aung Shin says the party will campaign both online and offline. "We have to make [the campaign] happen in line with COVID-19 guidelines," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Maung Maung Soe, a political analyst in Yangon, says the parties will have a tough time reaching constituents with their message. "We can't really see how much support the parties will get during the campaign, as they are not allowed to hold [large] public rallies," he told Nikkei. He urged the election commission to review regulations to make sure the campaigns play out over a level field.

UBP information officer Su Su Hlaing said the party had to cancel campaign trips due to the resurgence of the coronavirus. "We have to do most of our campaigning over the internet," she said, adding that the party had planned to visit small constituencies. "Party leader [Shwe Mann] will try to keep in touch with people as much as possible, including online activities."

But political analyst Maung Maung Soe said online campaigns will be a slog. "They can campaign online, but it's hard to have their voices heard," he noted.

The NLD's Monywa Aung Shin still feels the party will be victorious like in 2015. "I believe we'll win in a landslide, even though we can't hold public rallies," he said.

Additional reporting by Thurein Hla Htway in Yangon.

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