Yangon held a milestone election on March 31. But you might not have noticed, or paid it much regard. Neither did many of the residents of Myanmar’s biggest city.
It was the first municipal election to be held in more than 60 years where all adult residents could vote. The last city poll, in 2014, employed an electoral system in which only one person per household could vote – a system that privileged older men as “household heads”.
So far, so historic, particularly for the women and youth of Yangon. However, the municipal election commission has said turnout in the election was under 15 percent. The people of Yangon, it appears, largely chose to pass on the opportunity to have a greater say over who governs their city.
It’s worth asking why. Some have blamed inadequate voter education by the electoral authorities, civil society and the media, suggesting that awareness of the election and its significance was low. The preparations were, after all, rushed; the municipal election commission was only assembled in January.
Yet, as with most hand-wringing in Myanmar over the lack of “awareness” among ordinary people about political and social problems, civic education and its absence is unlikely to be the full story. Was the municipal election the democratic opportunity that it was cracked up to be?
The city’s municipal authority, the Yangon City Development Committee, has sweeping powers – including over city planning, drainage, rubbish disposal and business licensing – that affect the wellbeing and prosperity of more than 5 million people. It is also deeply unpopular.
For the fruit seller being chased by city officials from her prized square metre of pavement, to the small businessperson being shaken down with seemingly arbitrary tax demands, the YCDC is an institution that seems to take much but give back little.
On election day, some city residents told Frontier that the poor performance of the YCDC and endemic corruption within its ranks had discouraged them from voting. What others might have considered as a compelling reason to vote – an unsatisfactory status quo, which the introduction of accountability via the ballot box could help to overturn – was instead held up as a reason for not voting.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but there are doubts over whether those elected would have the power to implement reform at YCDC, even if they wanted to. Voters perhaps had reason to believe that their elected representatives would struggle to deliver on their campaign promises.
The new Yangon City Development law, enacted by the Yangon Region parliament last year, switches the balance of the YCDC executive committee in favour of elected representatives, who were formerly a minority. Out of 11 members on the committee, six were elected on March 31. Yet, it is unclear how responsibility will be divided between these members in terms of overseeing an institution with almost 50 legally stipulated functions, more than 20 departments and a staff of many thousands.
Moreover, one of the unelected members of the executive committee is the person formally in charge of the YCDC: Yangon’s mayor. Under the constitution, the president selects the regional chief minister, who then nominates a cabinet, including the mayor. As a sop to local democracy, the new position of deputy mayor has been created; the deputy mayor is elected by executive committee vote from among the elected members. On April 8, the committee chose National League for Democracy-member U Soe Lwin for the job. But it remains to be seen if the new deputy mayor, whose powers are ill-defined, will be able or willing to prevent municipal policy being driven by higher powers through the mayor.
Another cause for scepticism is the lack of meaningful safeguards against conflicts of interest. Many of those who vied in the election were prominent businesspeople whose fortunes largely depend on decisions made or contracts awarded by the YCDC. Although few of them were actually elected, the risks of corruption and abuse of office are massive and will remain a concern in future elections.
A thorough post-mortem of Yangon’s disappointing election would probably reveal a mixture of apathy, low awareness and justified scepticism as the culprits for low turnout. But if the government wants to foster greater public participation in electoral democracy, it needs to offer them something more than partially elected local governments with limited avenues for accountability.