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Poll monitor faults weak voter education effort for low by-election turnout

Election volunteers pass their time as they wait for voters at a polling station during by-elections in Rangoon on 1 April 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

Shortcomings in education and awareness campaigning dampened voter interest in the 1 April by-election and resulted in lower turnout than Burma’s historic 2015 general election, according to the Myanmar Election Observation Network (MEON).

Although the official campaign period spanned 60 days in the lead-up to the 2017 poll, voter education efforts began in earnest only weeks before 1 April, said the network, which is composed of civil society organisations.

The network deployed 147 observers across the 22 voting townships to monitor the elections, MEON said at a press conference held at the Myanmar Journalists Network office in Rangoon on Wednesday.

“In the by-elections, we saw voter education movements only about the last three weeks [of the campaign period]. It was allowed for 60 days, but not much was seen. So, the voters were not very interested,” said Min Thu Naung from the network.

“[We want] political parties to do [voter education]. We, the CSOs [civil society organisations], were also responsible. The [Union Election] Commission also should have thought about how to do voter education, working together with the media.”

According to an MEON statement released to coincide with the network’s press conference, 88 percent of the by-election could be considered free and fair. In the remaining 12 percent of cases, either voters, political parties or their candidates ran afoul of the law in some way.

Zin Aung Kyaw Htin, a member of a civil society group in Mon State, said the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party retained some of the advantages it accrued through years consolidating power as the Union Solidarity and Development Association and that mass organisation’s successor, the USDP.

“The USDP had more organisational power and coverage than the NLD. We can say they can do twice what the NLD can,” said Zin Aung Kyaw Htin.

Nonetheless, the USDP, which ruled from 2011-15, won just two seats in the 1 April by-election, compared with the NLD’s nine seats.

Speaking at Wednesday’s press conference, Aye Thandar Aung from the organisation Rain Maker said some problems that plagued the 2015 nationwide vote again surfaced this year, including irregularities in eligible voter lists.

“There was a difference of about 70,000 voters between first and second announcements [publically displaying voter lists for verification] in Mandalay. The gap was too big,” Aye Thandar Aung said. “Another thing is the voter list is inflated. It should be checked carefully in future elections.”

The MOEN said only about 40 percent of eligible voters came out to the polls on 1 April. That compared with nearly 70 percent turnout in 2015.

By-elections were held in 19 constituencies including Mong Shu and Kyethi townships, where there were no elections in 2015 due to security concerns.