Millions of people voted Sunday in Myanmar’s landmark election, with a massive turnout that could catapult Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power and finally end decades of military control.
Voters had queued from before dawn in huge numbers to cast their ballots for the first time in a quarter of a century, on a day heavy with history and pregnant with emotion.
The head of the European Union’s election monitoring team, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, offered cautious optimism.
“We have not seen signs of cheating” in the vote, he said, but warned risks remained during the transportation and counting of the ballots.
There was no official Brussels reaction from EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini as of early Sunday evening. However, earlier this week Human Rights Watch warned that Sunday’s election was already “fundamentally flawed.”
Citing the lack of an independent election commission, an obediant state media, 25% of seats reserved for the military, discriminatory voter registration and “mass disenfranchisement” in some parts of the former British-ruled country, Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said: “Long lines of voters on November 8 won’t make these fundamentally flawed elections free and fair.”
As counting got under way, early indications were of an “80 percent” turnout, according to Union Election Commission deputy director Thant Zin Aung – a figure the opposition believe favours their bid for a majority.
Thousands of supporters – many decked in the party’s red colour – gathered outside the Yangon headquarters of the National League for Democracy in the hope of some indication of victory from Suu Kyi.
But the woman known domestically as “The Lady” did not appear. Instead NLD patron Tin Oo read a message from the party’s figurehead.
“I urge you to wait for the result from your own homes,” he said, adding: “When the result comes out, I want you to accept it calmly.”
More than 30 million people were eligible to vote in Myanmar’s freest election for a generation.
The NLD believes a fair vote will power it into government after a decades-long struggle against army dictatorship.
But Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency by the army-scripted constitution and the NLD faces an uphill struggle because a quarter of seats are still reserved for the military.
In the capital Naypyidaw, President Thein Sein, a one-time top-ranking junta general, smiled for the cameras and held up his little finger, stained with purple ink, after voting.
His army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the main obstacle to an NLD victory.
Many voters remain nervous about how the powerful army will react if it loses, with concerns over the fraud that riddled previous elections.
But after casting his vote in the capital, Myanmar’s powerful army chief said his troops would respect the voice of the electorate.
“Just as the winner accepts the result, so should the loser,” Min Aung Hlaing told reporters.
Suu Kyi, wearing a traditional skirt with her trademark string of flowers in her hair, was mobbed by scores of reporters as she voted in Yangon early on Sunday in scenes that offered a vivid reminder of the way she towers over the democracy movement.
But the day belonged to the queues of ordinary people, many wearing traditional longyi sarongs, who swarmed to polling stations across the nation.
At Suu Kyi’s rural constituency of Kawhmu, where the opposition leader travelled after casting her ballot, smiling crowds jostled for space with the media scrum.
Aspirations for change run high in Myanmar after five decades in which a brutal junta silenced opponents with violence and jail.
But in 2011 the regime 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.
The 1990 landslide that never happened…
It is the first election the NLD has contested since 1990, when the party claimed a landslide win only to see the army ignore the result and condemn Suu Kyi to spend most of the next 20 years under house arrest.
The 70-year-old is not allowed to be president under a charter that blocks anyone with foreign children from top office – Suu Kyi’s two sons are British.
But on Thursday she declared an NLD win would see her take a position “above the president” — a challenge to the army that has spent 25 years trying to hamper her political ascent.
Suu Kyi 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.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been excluded from voting.
To win a majority the NLD needs to secure just over two thirds of the contested seats.
The USDP needs only around a third of seats to join up with the military bloc, which has 25 percent of all parliamentary seats.