Myanmar went to the polls on 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 vote, hoped to be Myanmar’s fairest for a generation.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party believes a fair vote will power it into government after a decades-long struggle against army dictatorship.
But the Nobel Laureate is barred from the presidency by the army-scripted constitution and the NLD faces an uphill struggle as a quarter of seats are reserved for the military.
Known affectionately known as “Mother Suu”, she towers over the country’s democracy movement, acting as a galvanising force for the NLD.
“I have cast my vote, my duty is done,” said 74-year-old Myint Aung, at the Yangon polling station where Suu Kyi will vote later Sunday.
“I voted for the one the people want to rule,” he said playfully, before showing a little finger dipped in purple ink to indicate he has voted.
‘No complaints... so far’
The southeast Asian nation was ruled for five decades by a brutal junta that smothered opponents with violence and jail.
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.
Many voters remain nervous over how the powerful army will react if it loses.
Foreign election observers have also fanned out across the country to monitor the fairness of the poll -- fraud has riddled previous elections.
But election officials insisted early voting was going well.
“We haven’t had any complaints so far,” Win Naing, an election commission official, told AFP.
Polls will close in the late afternoon with the attention then turning to the NLD headquarters in Yangon where big screens will track the count as figures trickles in from across the country.
But official results are not expected until Monday morning at the earliest.
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.
The 70-year-old Suu Kyi 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 Suu Kyi declared an NLD win would see her take a position “above the president”, laying down a firm challenge to the army which has at all turns tried to hamper her political ascent.
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.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been excluded from voting, and the poll will not be held in several border areas where fighting between the army and ethnic rebels simmers.
But to Suu Kyi’s supporters, many of whom were voting for the first time on Sunday, see an NLD win as a major stride towards the fulfilment of her destiny to lead the country.
“I couldn’t sleep the whole night I was so excited,” Ohnmar Win, 38, told AFP.
“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.
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, which is allotted 25 percent of all parliamentary seats, and select its presidential nominee.