YANGON – Government officials of Myanmar’s election commission summoned major political parties on Tuesday to discuss postponing a historic Nov. 8 general election due to the worst flooding to hit the country in decades, but the party led by opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi said that the move was aimed at thwarting its chances at the ballot box.
The Union Election Commission on Tuesday floated the idea of postponing the vote, currently scheduled for Nov. 8, during a meeting with 10 of the country’s biggest political parties. While the current military-linked ruling party favored delaying the vote, Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy pushed back against the proposal, a senior party member who attended the meeting said.
The proposed vote delay has more has more to do with the “overwhelming support” shown for Ms. Suu Kyi and her party in recent weeks, says Yan Myo Thein, an independent political analyst in Yangon.
“The possibility of the [Union Solidarity and Development Party] winning a large number of seats seems to be narrowing, and the postponement would give the ruling party more time to prepare for this and arrange their strategy accordingly,” he said.
Salai Nge Pi, secretary of the Chin National Democratic Party, an ethnic minority party in Chin state, one of the areas worst affected by the floods said he suspected the proposed postponement is for political reasons.
“We will accept if they postpone the floods in some areas where flooding and landslides have really affected the people, but not in all areas,” he said, speaking from Falam, a town in Chin state, where he says roads are still accessible, though imperfect and unpaved, as in much of the country.
The commission will issue its verdict later Tuesday or on Wednesday. “We have not yet made a decision and will consider the views of political parties,” said Tin Tun, director general and secretary of the election commission.
The elections are being billed as the freest and fairest vote in Myanmar in decades. The vote also will be a test of how deeply democracy has taken root since nearly a half-century of military rule ended in 2011.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD is expected to challenge the dominance of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, comprised mostly of former generals, and pick up significantly more seats in the legislature, which will select a new president by March.
Myanmar doesn’t have any official polls, and it is hard to accurately gauge support for specific parties, but rallies featuring Ms. Suu Kyi have drawn crowds of thousands of supporters. In contrast, on a recent rally in the capital of Naypyitaw, those listening to a speech by Hla Htay Win, a USDP candidate and former general, sat silent and started leaving halfway through — prompting a plea from the former general for them to stay till the end.
According to Myanmar law, the next election must be held by Jan. 1 next year, 30 days before the next parliament is due to convene. Postponing the vote could shake confidence in the process, analysts say, especially if a new date isn’t immediately set.
Win Htein, a central executive committee member of Ms. Suu Kyi’s party—which is fielding the largest number of candidates—said that a postponement of the vote “absolutely cannot happen.”
The government is overstating the severity of recent floods and landslides to gain a political advantage in the vote, Mr. Win Htein said, noting that nationwide referendum was held in 2008 in the aftermath of a cyclone that killed tens of thousands of people.
Parties supporting a vote delay raised concerns about the difficulty for candidates to campaign in certain areas, including the northern Kachin state and Chin state bordering India, because of the recent heavy monsoon rains.
Shwe Mann, the ousted chairman of the USDP, had to postpone a campaign stop planned for Tuesday in his hometown of Phyu in Bago region, north of Yangon, where he is running for a seat in parliament. Khin Zaw Oo, a retired general also running for a parliamentary seat, had to scale back his campaign stops in the southern Thanintharyi region, bordering Thailand, late last month because of flooding there.
But for the most part, election monitors say that few parties or candidates have complained about flooding or landslides derailing their activities — even in the worst hit areas — and continue to prepare for the planned vote despite the weather.
Severe floods since July have killed at least 80 people and temporarily displaced about 1.6 million of Myanmar’s 51 million people, according to latest U.N. statistics from September, but flooding has eased since then. State media has reported in recent days that some areas worst hit by the floods are likely to be inundated by new rains in coming weeks. However, some observers say that the bad weather is unlikely to last into November.
Several election monitors and international organizations are helping Myanmar prepare for the elections, including the European Union, and U.S. groups including the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center.
Election monitors declined to comment on the situation until a final decision is reached by the election commission.
State media separately announced Tuesday that elections would be canceled in 400 villages, saying that it was “impossible to hold elections in a free and fair manner” in those places. It didn’t elaborate, but that decision would affect a small number of people, largely in areas such as Kachin state where fighting is continuing between rebel armies and Myanmar’s military.