Myanmar began voting Sunday in a historic election that could thrust Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party into power and finally pull the country away from the grip of the military.
Queues of people, many wearing traditional longyi sarongs, built up before daybreak at polling stations across Yangon in a sign of the enthusiasm that has accompanied the milestone poll, hoped to be Myanmar’s fairest for a generation.
“All polling stations around the country opened at 6am (2330 GMT) at the same time,” Ko Ko, an election commission official, told AFP.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party believes a fair vote will power it into government.
The Nobel laureate — affectionately known as “Mother Suu” — towers over the country’s democracy movement, acting as a galvanising force for the NLD.
But she is barred from the presidency by the army-scripted constitution.
Still excitement has crescendoed in recent days among voters, despite nerves over how the powerful army will react if it loses.
“I couldn’t sleep the whole night I was so excited,” Ohnmar Win, 38, told AFP, outside the Yangon polling station where Suu Kyi is due to vote later in the morning.
“It’s my first time voting. I hope for the best. I will go to the NLD headquarters in the evening to wait for the results,” she added.
The southeast Asian nation was ruled for five decades by a brutal junta that smothered opponents with violence, jail and political sleight of hand.
But in 2011 the junta suddenly handed power to a semi-civilian government led by former generals.
Sweeping reforms since have loosened the straitjacketed economy and brought many freedoms to an isolated, wearied people — including the release of most political prisoners.
Some 30 million people are eligible to vote, in an event that has posed major logistical challenges across a vast and poor country.
Polls will close in the late afternoon with official results expected to start trickling out by early Monday.
– Barred from presidency –
It is the first election the NLD has contested since 1990, when the party claimed a landslide only to see the army ignore the result and condemn Suu Kyi to spend most of the next 20 years under house arrest.
“I will vote for Daw Suu as she is the only one who can bring change for us,” Nan Pan Aye, a 35-year-old shop owner in Karen State, told AFP using the honorific “daw”.
But the 70-year-old Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency by a constitutional clause believed to have been inserted by the army drafters specifically to hamper her political rise.
She has also faced international censure for failing to speak up for the country’s embattled Muslim population — especially the ethnic Rohingya in restive Rakhine State.
But her supporters, many of whom will vote for the first time on Sunday, see an NLD win as a stepping stone to the fulfilment of her destiny to lead the country.
Waves of people are believed to have travelled to their home constituencies to vote, in a sign of the enthusiasm for the landmark election.
Some 91 parties are standing in more than 300 constituencies.
To win a majority — and have free rein to choose its presidential candidate — the NLD needs to secure just over two thirds of the contested seats, although it could still make alliances with smaller parties if it falls short.
It is up against the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military-backed behemoth stacked with former military cadres, including the bespectacled President Thein Sein, a one-time top-ranking junta general.
The USDP needs only around a third of seats to join up the military bloc and select its presidential nominee.
The NLD also faces a formidable opponent in the shape of the army — 25 percent of all parliamentary seats are reserved for military appointees.