Just before sundown, a small truck emblazoned with a logo featuring a yellow bamboo hat parked across the street from the Sule Pagoda. Volunteers began to fan out plastic chairs in anticipation for a National Democratic Force (NDF) rally.
Kyaw Thu Ya, a 32-year-old Lower House NDF candidate, said that he hopes for about a thousand supporters to show up. “A lot of people here know a lot about our party, which will support them and bring benefits to their lives,” he said, referring to Kyauktada Township where he is running for a seat.
By 6pm, no more than 50 participants had arrived; the bulk of them were waiting for the bus to get home as Kyaw Thu Ya began his campaign stump speech.
Ahead of Burma’s election tomorrow, the ruling Union and Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) have dominated the news. Rallies held by both parties this week drew crowds numbering the thousands – though NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi tends to attract a larger, more fervent following – and voters in the Rangoon region appear to overwhelmingly favour the opposition party.
Languishing in the background are posters on the streets touting candidates from other smaller parties, such as Kyaw Thu Ya’s NDF, the Democratic Party, or the New Era Union Party. With more than 90 political groups participating in this election, candidates from lesser-known parties are attempting to persuade voters using policy instead of banking on the name recognition of the NLD, while ethnic minority parties are confident that they will win across ethnic lines.
Kyaw Thu Ya has been campaigning on the basis that his party – a splinter group formed by former NLD members that won 16 seats in the 2010 election – has already effected change for the people. He said that in the last five years that the NDF held seats in parliament, they have submitted legislation calling for the increase of agricultural loans and the extension of maternity leave to six months instead of three.
“For the NLD party, they only started in 2012 and they didn’t really do anything yet,” he said. “But I have experience and I can show my people my experience.”
He added that the main difference in the two parties is how they approach democratic change.
“We believe that this time is a construction period, and we don’t need a revolution now,” Kyaw Thu Ya said. “The NLD is thought of as fighters but we don’t need that. We need reconstruction.”
For Kalyar Soe, secretary of the Federal Union Party (FUP) – a group formed in 2013 by former members from ethnic political parties – campaigning for the role of a regional seat in Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township has been very challenging.
“It is so difficult because my constituency is very strong with the NLD,” she said, explaining that FUP is canvassing for seats in 17 townships across the country. “I tell the voters that my party has the most ability. We believe in equal opportunity and that everyone is seen as equal under the law.”
She is hoping to appeal to the women in her constituency. “Most women like me because I have taken part in politics before,” Kalyar Soe said. “I also work with women’s organisations a lot so most of the Yangon [Rangoon] women believe me when I say I will help them get more opportunities.”
While most of the ethnic people in her township would likely vote for her, Kalyar Soe says that she is only “75 percent confident” about her chances of winning tomorrow.
Unlike the FUP, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNLD) and the Arakan National Party (ANP) are fully confident that they will be able to come with a majority vote in each of their states.
ANP chairman told DVB earlier this week that his party – which represents the Arakanese Buddhist majority in the volatile Arakan State – will sweep the vote, while SNLD general secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin was equally confident.
“All the Shan people will support us,” he said, adding that they are fielding 158 candidates all over the country in areas with a sizable Shan population.
He conceded that some Shan people might throw their support behind Aung San Suu Kyi because they want to ensure that the popular opposition party gets a majority into parliament, instead of “wasting” their ballot on the SNLD – which is likely to gain a foothold in his state.
“Some might vote NLD, but those people are considering the politics of the whole of Burma,” he said, adding that his party is prepared to work with any democratic party after the election.
On the eve of the national poll – also known as a day of silence – voters around Rangoon were mostly unanimous about their support for the NLD. All cited the NLD leader as a source of adoration.
“I have to vote for NLD because I really respect ‘Our Lady’ and she’s a former general’s daughter,” said 23-year-old shop vendor Aung Aung, adding that he knows nothing about the other parties.
Myat Thu, head of the Yangon School of Political Science, said that while he believes it is pertinent that a democratic party forms the government, such blind adoration towards a single figurehead could be dangerous.
“This time, the people are right … because for democracy, it is important there is alternation in power. But in the long run, it is not very good because they don’t know policies,” he said. “So the politicians have less pressure for their accountability of their agency.”
He added that Burma is currently in the state of playing a popularity contest when it comes to the political landscape, and it can be seen in the campaign efforts across the country. Rock bands and singers urge people to celebrate on the streets, but there is no talk of what policies will be enacted after the election.
“The only thing lacking in this election is policies,” he said. “The voters have to articulate what their interests are, and then they have to put demands on their representatives to do it. Then, and only then, will candidates be accountable for the people.”