Myanmar to Hold By-Elections at End of Year

Myanmar will hold by-elections in November or December this year to fill 30 seats in parliament and state legislatures, the country’s top polls official said Thursday, in a move that allows political parties to test their strength ahead of crucial general elections next year.

Union Election Commission Chair Tin Aye made the announcement in response to a question from an opposition politician in parliament in the capital Naypyidaw.

He said the by-elections had to be pushed back to the end of the year because of weather and pressing items on the government’s agenda, including holding the first national census in decades and the country’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“The 2015 election will be held in November or December of 2015 and by-elections will be held in late 2014,” he said.

“Our country has so much going on at this time such as …. the census and many activities in each ministry as the country is this year’s ASEAN chair,” he said.

“Then the raining season is coming soon, so the by-elections will be held in November or December of 2014 after the monsoon season [in October].”

The by-elections will be for six seats in the Upper House, 13 in the Lower House, and 11 in state and regional legislatures—all left vacant by officials who have resigned or died since the last general elections in 2010.

The exact date of the by-elections will be announced later, at least 30 days in advance.

Test round

It will be the second round of by-elections since Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein took power in March 2011 after landmark general elections in November the year before following decades under military rule.  

The upcoming by-elections are expected to indicate the relative strengths of the contending parties, including Thein Sein’s army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Lawmaker Thein Nyunt of the National Democratic Force likened the by-elections to a “qualifying round of a soccer tournament” ahead of what analysts expect to be Myanmar’s first free and fair general elections in decades.

“It is also an opportunity to test and find out how many people support your party, so parties have to participate in this,” he told RFA’s Myanmar’s Service.

NLD to contest

NLD officials confirmed they would contest the by-elections, saying they were pleased with the announcement that the polls would go forward before the end of the year.

“If there is vacancy in parliament, a by-election should be held. That is the responsibility and the right of the election commission,” NLD lawmaker Win Myint told RFA.

“It was not written in the constitution that by-elections can be postponed because of bad weather or because [the commission] doesn’t have enough time to conduct them.”

Tin Aye had said in October last year that the country was “too busy” to hold by-elections before this year, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The NLD boycotted the 2010 general election as undemocratic but participated in April 2012 by-elections, in which Ang San Suu Kyi led her party in grabbing 43 out of the 45 seats at stake.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed in 2010 after nearly two decades of house arrest during the previous military junta rule, contested the elections after Thein Sein's reformist government amended the election law to pave the way for her return to active politics.

She has said she wants to run for president in 2015, but provisions in the constitution bar her from taking up the post on the grounds that her sons hold British citizenship.

Her party has pushed for those provisions, which some analysts believe were written specifically to target her, to be amended ahead of the polls, as well as for other sweeping changes to the charter.

A number of ethnic-based parties have also proposed constitutional amendments and are expected to contest the upcoming polls.

Reported by Myo Thant Khine and Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.