Burma: Election Fever Heats Up and Even the Military’s Party Plays Along

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James Nachtwey for TIME

An election poster at a USDP rally in Yuzana, Burma, on March 28, 2012

At the campaign rally on the outskirts of Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, much appeared as it should be. A sweaty crowd, thousands strong, dutifully waved green-and-red party flags; many sported baseball caps with the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s (USDP) elegant lion logo on it. The candidate, Aung Win, was draped with garlands of sweet-smelling jasmine and flashed a politician’s grin. He was introduced on a stage thrumming with a techno bass by Htay Oo, the USDP’s general secretary, who peppered his speech with English words like democracy. There was even a local pop star in tight pink-and-white pants; she knew how to get the crowd roused.

As the dominant party in Burma’s parliament, the USDP has little to lose in the upcoming April 1 by-elections. Even if all the 45 seats up for grabs are won by opposition parties — an unlikely eventuality — the Burmese army’s proxy party will still be firmly in control of the legislative body. In 2010, the military regime that ran Burma since a 1962 coup held elections that were supposed to transition the county to a quasi-civilian government. Many generals retired from the military and ran as USDP candidates. In polls that were widely considered fraudulent, the USDP won handily. Burma, officially known as Myanmar, was supposed to follow a familiar if depressing path: autocratic President, rubber-stamp parliament, the ever present threat of the men in green.

But somewhere along the way, new President Thein Sein began a series of reforms, including releasing political prisoners and meeting with regime nemesis Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate whose nonviolent struggle for democracy has inspired the world as she spent most of two decades under house arrest. The rubber-stamp body, even though it is filled with USDP members and has one-quarter of its seats reserved for active military members, started passing legislation and engaging in real debate. Can this political pantomime actually transition to any form of true democracy?

(PHOTOS: Freedom for Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi)

Certainly, in the final run-up to the by-elections, the USDP was trying to act the part of proper political party. USDP general secretary Htay Oo, a retired general who served as the junta’s Minister of Agriculture, told the flag-waving crowd that the regime had been planning a transition toward democracy for a long time. “The idea of the USDP as a political party had been in our leaders’ minds since 2006,” he said, before he and his colleagues enumerated all the things that the military’s proxy party had done for locals: new roads, construction, microloans. Critics may decry the USDP’s attempts to buy votes by promising lucrative projects or building roads at just the right time before elections. But these are hardly tactics unfamiliar to democracies in the rest of the world.

Still, as the speeches went on and the memory of the gyrating Burmese pop star faded, the crowd began to droop. Men reached into their pockets for wads of betel nut. An enterprising seller of quail eggs stalked the crowd offering a reviving snack. One woman, who had been there for three hours, dropped hints that she, like many around her, was not there because of any deep-seated loyalty to the army proxy party. “This is just people showing off their power,” she said dismissively, gesturing toward the stage. When the speeches ended, many of the supposed political supporters were shepherded into a long row of buses to take them home. It was less an exercise in free politics than forced logistics.

By contrast, the excitement is electric surrounding candidates for the National League for Democracy (NLD) — Suu Kyi’s opposition party, which is running in its first electoral contest since winning the 1990 polls that the junta then ignored. (The opposition party boycotted the 2010 contest because it doubted the vote would be fair.) Four NLD candidates are running in Rangoon, and they garnered huge cheers and crowds — all unforced and natural. Across Rangoon, the NLD’s stickers are plastered on cars, bicycles and mildewed walls. Posters of Suu Kyi, smiling in a rapper-style red baseball cap or posing with her puppy, peer out from the unlikeliest of places, like the side of a military-sandbag post.

While the USDP talked of all the infrastructure it planned to shower on Burma’s impoverished populace, the NLD focused more on airy principles like democracy and freedom — noble ideals that may have sustained a repressed citizenry for decades. When Suu Kyi, who is running herself for a seat representing the Irrawaddy Delta township of Kawhmu, campaigned on behalf of other NLD candidates, ecstatic hordes gathered. But on occasion, the candidate she was there to support was never given a chance to articulate a policy platform, or even speak at all. Suu Kyi was the clear draw.

Phyu Phyu Thin, a tireless activist who runs clinics for HIV-AIDS patients shunned by the government’s health facilities, is running as the NLD candidate in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, a heavily Muslim area of Rangoon. When asked why she was running in this particular township, as opposed to her home neighborhood, the answer was simple: “Because Auntie Suu wanted me to.” Although Phyu Phyu Thin greeted her constituents with a rousing smile and polished speech, the reason many had turned out to support her was clear. “I love the NLD because it is Mother Suu’s party,” said driver Zaw Myint. “There is no other reason.”

(READ: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s First Lady of Freedom)

Phyu Phyu Thin’s political rival from the USDP also seems to be drafting in the wake of someone famous. As the NLD wrapped up a raucous campaign swing through Mingalar Taung Nyunt, a small clutch of USDP supporters stood on a street corner. When asked information about their candidate, they looked a bit confused. “She’s the wife of a government minister,” said one, straining to remember her name. Eventually a child was dispatched to fetch a pamphlet on the candidate. She is named Lae Lae Aye and she is, indeed, married to the minister for forestry and energy of Rangoon division. Among her accomplishments listed on a campaign pamphlet are the completion of a first-aid training course and a study of basic accounting in 1998.

These by-elections aren’t just being contested by two parties. In fact, 157 candidates from 17 parties are running for the 45 seats. Some represent the ethnic groups that make up a big chunk of Burma’s total population, like the Shan or the Rakhine. Others are democratic parties, like the National Democratic Force, which contentiously broke away from the NLD to contest the 2010 elections and won a handful of seats. Still others are helmed by former political prisoners or quasi socialists. For the foreign-election observers who were hastily allowed in at the last moment, keeping track of all these parties will be a challenge, much less confirming whether they are even allowed to freely enter polling stations to do their job. (By-election results are likely to be released about one week after the vote.)

But all these other parties notwithstanding, these are Suu Kyi’s elections to lose. At the USDP rally, Hla Hla Myint seemed to really support candidate Aung Win. The 60-year-old retired schoolteacher was not bused in but rather rode her bicycle to see him. But even she was complimentary of Suu Kyi: “Whether it’s the USDP or Auntie Suu, they are both working toward the same goal, which is the development of the country.” Who will win in her district, the NLD or the USDP? “It’s 50-50, I think,” she said. “No one can say for certain.” Meanwhile, an air of confidence reigned at the NLD office in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, even as the opposition party complained of voter rolls that included dead people and minors while missing actual residents. One campaign staffer happily assessed Phyu Phyu Thin’s chances. “If there is no vote-rigging, then we will win 100% of the votes,” he predicted. “But if there’s vote-rigging, then we will get only 85 to 90% of the vote.” Expectations don’t run higher than that.