Ethnic parties are stepping up the heat in Shan State, where they say their candidacy should not be discounted by the country’s two largest political parties.

Though the National League for Democracy is expected to make large gains in the coming polls and the Union Solidarity and Development Party has the benefit of incumbency in many areas, the eight ethnic parties running in Shan State complicate the electoral landscape and may prevent either from claiming victory.

“One prediction we can make with certainty about the results of the 2015 election is that the two major political parties will not be able to overcome the ethnic parties,” said Sai Aik Paung, chair of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, which is also known as Kyar Phyu, or White Tiger.

The party won the second-highest number of seats in national parliament in the 2010 election, and members believe they would have swept even more were it not for widespread irregularities and voting fraud.

The SNDP is hoping to build on its 2010 success. Party leaders claim to be on a more solid political grounding and boast that the SNDP has grown to over 500,000 members. The party is fielding 211 candidates in the November 8 election, more than any other single ethnic party.

“There won’t be any one party winning in a landslide victory like in 1990,” Sai Aik Paung said.

Even in 1990, when the NLD took 80pc of seats nationally, the ethnic parties grabbed the next most sizeable bloc, together netting 15pc.

But Sai Aik Paung anticipates the diversity of Shan State may further fracture the upcoming vote, with strong community allegiances trumping the popularity of the largest opposition party, especially in the outer fringes and villages.

Voters appear to back this theory, telling The Myanmar Times that they plan to vote along ethnic lines.

“Many of the people from our ward will vote for their tribe or ethnic group’s party. I am Danu so I will vote for the Danu party because I believe that the candidates from my race/ethnicity know the region and what it needs, and so will be able to perform the best,” said Ko Soe Li from Kalaw township.

While the two largest parties, the USDP and the NLD, have both made a push for Shan State, Sai Aik Paung from the SNDP believes they are wasting time and should have instead explored opportunities to partner with local ethnic parties.

“We thought that the NLD would be stronger, but it is not like we anticipated,” he said.

The NLD declined to enter into any constituency-sharing agreements with ethnic parties, a move many perceived as jeopardising a possible opposition alliance after the election.

While Daw Aung San Suu Kyi initially suggested that her party would consider not fielding contestants that overlap with allies, the NLD instead rejected calls for a broader alliance with ethnic parties, and lined up 1138 candidates for the 1171 available spots. Rather than bolstering a coalition and presenting a united opposition front, the NLD treated all parties as potential competitors and even nominated candidates for the ethnic minister seats.

In order to boost their own chances at beating the larger and better-funded ruling and opposition parties, the two largest ethnic rival groups in Shan State, the SNDP and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (known as the Tiger Heads or Kyar Khaung Party), attempted a merger ahead of the election. But the plan for a united front disintegrated, largely over constituency splitting arrangements.

In September, a report by the Transnational Institute on the ethnic political landscape of 2015 concluded that with so many nationality-based parties jostling for a greater legislative role, their failure to coordinate before the polls will cost them.

“If nationality parties had coalesced or agreed not to stand against each other, their number of seats could have been boosted,” the institute’s report said.

“The choice for a voter is easy if there is only one party in their constituency representing their ethnicity, as will be the case, for example, for Rakhine voters in many Rakhine State constituencies where the main Rakhine parties have merged,” it added.

In Shan State, the ethnic parties face further challenges with ongoing conflict, intimidation by rival armed factions and vote cancellations. In the northern half of the state, several areas controlled by the Shan State Army-North have been nixed from the elections for security reasons, with five townships along the periphery also taken out of the polls.

“These places are the core of our support base,” said U Sai Tun Aye, a Pyithu Hluttaw representative from the SNLD for Mong Hsu township, where the election was called off on October 27. “We believe the UEC’s announcement is an attempt to skew the results in favour of the government and its allies.”

Author and political analyst U Than Soe Naing said while the NLD is likely to sweep Shan State’s urban areas where there is a higher concentration of Bamar voters, the rural areas are a different story.

“The NLD might win in Taunggyi and Lashio. There is no way to compete with the NLD in big cities. In 1990, they also won in these places. There is more probability the Kyar Khaung Party [SNLD] will win in the far north and south of Shan State, as they have the biggest bloc of supporters. The second strongest is the Kyar Phyu Party [SNDP] and we’re seeing the NLD follow in third place,” he said. “Autonomous districts and strongholds of other ethnic groups, such as Ywarngan and Pindaya townships, will splinter the vote a little bit, with voters selecting their relevant ethnic party.”

U Than Soe Naing and Sai Aik Paung both suggested the USDP was not a viable competitor in the state.

“I figure we will win 80pc of the state definitely … The party is concerned about Taunggyi because there are greater populations of Bamar and Pa-O people there so it will dilute the vote for us,” said Sai Aik Paung, who is contesting the state’s Amyotha Hluttaw Constituency 4.

“It not only Shan State but all the ethnic states that the two big parties will have difficulty penetrating,” he said.

For the SNLD, convincing their constituents to be involved in the elections has been a struggle when ongoing fighting and displacement present pressing concerns.

U Sai Lin Myat, an SNLD candidate for a Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Taunggyi, said in addition to cancelled areas, his party has faced difficulties campaigning in Shan State, as well as problems with the voter list.

“Some places don’t know about us. Our party got the second-most votes in 1990 in the whole country. But we didn’t compete in 2010 because we didn’t accept the 2008 constitution. So now we have to introduce ourselves again. The next big problem is the voter list issues,” he said.

“Only people who are interested in politics came to see the lists. So they are filled with errors which will badly effect the election. As a hluttaw candidate, I have to try hard to amend my constituency’s list … Because of this I don’t think the election will be free and fair.”

While roughly two-thirds of all registered parties are ethnic minority-based, the chances of any of them winning a significant bloc of seats are slim.

But the SNDP leader said the larger parties would need the support of smaller ethnic rivals in order to select their preferred president.

“We don’t have any plan to form a coalition with the NLD or the USDP. They will have to join us when they want to nominate a presidential candidate. At that time, we will choose which one will do the best for our people,” said Sai Aik Paung.

Sai Lin Myat from the SNLD added, “Shan State is not anyone’s subordinate.”

“Nationality parties will be more powerful in this election,” he added.

The local NLD chair for Taunggyi, U Tin Maung Toe, is hedging his bets that the ethnic parties are too fragmented and disperse to present a real problem for the larger opposition.

“Some people suggest that our party won’t surpass the ethnic parties, but in reality there has been some disunity inside their parties. There are a lot of ethnic political parties rivaling each other in Shan State,” he said. “There are really only four parties competing across Myanmar, and our main rival is the USDP. It is most important that we beat them.”