RANGOON, Burma — Millions of Burmese voted Sunday in their first contested national elections in 25 years to bring this country from long-time military rule toward democracy — a day marked by excitement and without major reports of violence.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is expected to win the parliamentary elections, but preliminary results won’t be available until Monday and could take all week. It was not clear when the final tally will be known.
Suu Kyi, 70, a Nobel laureate who heads the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), voted Sunday at the polling station near her Rangoon home where she spent 15 years under house arrest during the earlier military dictatorship.
Sunday’s election is the first time Suu Kyi was actually able to vote. She was locked up during the last openly contested vote in 1990, the first election allowed by the junta since it took power in 1962. Her party won that vote by a landslide, but a shocked army refused to recognize the results.
The National League is expected to prevail again against the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is backed by the military and came to power in 2010 elections, which marked the end of decades of military rule and the installment of a nominally civilian government. The NLD and other opposition parties boycotted those elections, claiming they were rigged.
“This is my first time voting and I’m very excited,” said Han Myint Kyu, 26, an office bookkeeper in Rangoon who waited in line for more than an hour to cast his ballot. “This is a very great chance to develop our country. We need to change and democracy is the best way to do it.”
Burma, also known as Myanmar, still provides several obstacles to the opposition. Regardless of the voting results, the military will hold 25% of the seats in parliament, as well as control of the army, police and border affairs. Suu Kyi’s party must win two-thirds of Sunday’s vote to control a majority of parliament’s 498 seats.
“We are expecting that the NLD is likely to win a plurality but not an absolute majority,” said Christian Lewis, a political risk analyst with Eurasia Group.
He said the Union Solidarity party only needs a modest showing to form a powerful coalition in parliament with the military. “I think (the Union Solidarity party) is only aiming for 10% to 15% at which point the 25% that’s allocated to the military is going to make them very competitive with the NLD,” he said.
Other observers were more optimistic. “If the outcome is credible and it is without any vote fixing, then I think the Burmese people may be very pleasantly surprised. The NLD may have a majority of votes and they may be able to form a government,” said Aung Zaw, founder and editor-in-chief of the Burmese news magazine The Irrawaddy.
While Sunday’s election appeared to run smoothly, there have been concerns of irregularities in the voting rolls and disenfranchisement of many minorities, especially the Rohingya, a Muslim minority. Human Rights Watch has declared the elections “fundamentally flawed.”
Parliament will choose the president next year, with the upper and lower houses of parliament and the military putting up one candidate each for a vote.
Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president because of a constitutional clause that excludes anyone with close foreign relatives from holding the office. Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British national, and she has two British sons.
She still vowed to lead the country if her party wins, saying before the election that she would be “above the president.” She said someone else in her party would have the title of president, but she would make the decisions to rule the government.
That triggered an angry response last week from the co-charman of the Union Solidarity party, U Htay Oo. He told the Nikkei Asian Review that the “president is head of the country — no one is above the president, that is clear according to the constitution — it would be violating the constitution to appoint and direct the president.”
President Thein Sein voted Sunday and reiterated that the ruling party would respect the results, the Associated Press reported.
Asked by TheIrrawaddy what he would do if his party loses, Thein Sein said: “I have to accept it as it is. … Whatever it is, we have to accept our voters’ desire. Whoever leads the country, the most important thing is to have stability and development in the country,” the AP said.
Election official Thant Zin Aung told Agence France-Presse that early indications showed 80% of eligible voters cast ballots Sunday. Some 32 million Burmese were registered to vote.
Contributing: Gregg Zoroya in McLean, Va.
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