Voters in Myanmar headed to the polls on Sunday in the country’s second election since military rule ended in 2011, with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy poised to win another term.
Millions are expected to cast their ballots even as the Southeast Asian nation fights to contain a surging coronavirus epidemic. The Union Election Commission has pledged that preventive measures at the polling stations will minimize voters’ risks of getting infected.
In the Taikkyi township in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, hundreds of voters lined up before polling stations opened at 6 a.m. local time. Social distancing was enforced, along with temperature checks, while election officers handed out masks and face shields to those entering the voting area.
About 37.3 million people are eligible to vote in the election, where 5,639 candidates from 91 political parties will vie for 1,117 seats at the central parliament and regional assemblies, according to the Union Election Commission. Voting was canceled in some areas where the commission said that free and fair elections couldn’t be guaranteed for security reasons. Polls will close at 4 p.m. and most results are expected by late Monday.
Myanmar has spent more than $36 million on protective equipment such as masks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizer, for the election, according to government spokesman Zaw Htay. The country has reported 60,348 coronavirus cases and 1,396 fatalities, the third-highest number of infections in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and the Philippines.
“I am very afraid of the virus like everyone else, but I fear more about the possibility of the wrong people taking office if I fail to support those I love,” said Zinmar Thu, a 30-year-old shopkeeper who voted early to avoid the crowds in Taikkyi.
The country’s first civilian-led government in more than five decades has delivered on some reforms, including liberalization of the banking, insurance and education sectors and curbing inflation. But about a third of the population lives in poverty, businesses remain mired in red tape, and accusations of genocide against the country’s Muslim Rohingya population are still a concern for foreign investors.
On the campaign trail, Suu Kyi has touted her economic accomplishments, saying in an Oct. 26 speech that Myanmar has reached 98% of its foreign direct investment target for this year despite the pandemic.
NLD won a total of 887 seats in the 2015 election. Analysts predict a smaller win this time as parties formed along ethnic lines get more support.
“Ethnic parties are stronger than ever before,” and the chief ministers of some states have become less popular because of their performance, said Nang Raw Zahkung, director of policy and strategy at Nyein (Shalom) Foundation. “It will end up splitting the vote” among people of different ethnicities, she said.
Min Zaw Oo, executive director at Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security, said the NLD could negotiate with some ethnic parties to form a coalition government if it doesn’t get enough seats to form one by itself. The military, known as Tatmadaw, takes 25% of all seats at the national legislature and provincial assemblies, according to the 2008 Constitution.
Investors predict Myanmar’s economy will face strong headwinds in the short term because of the impact of COVID-19, even as longer-term prospects remain positive.
“The next five years are very crucial years for Myanmar’s economic transformation, and the next government needs to make the right moves,” said Lim Chong Chong, founder of Ascent Capital Partners which launched Singapore’s first Myanmar-focused fund. The next government should prioritize improving power generation and logistics infrastructure, digitalization and human capital development, he said.
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