Joy and apprehension over Myanmar’s free elections

HISTORICAL VOTE: A Kayan woman, from one of Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups, shows her ink-stained finger after she voted yesterday, in front of a polling station in Panpet village, Demoso township, Kayah state Picture: REUTERS
HISTORICAL VOTE: A Kayan woman, from one of Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups, shows her ink-stained finger after she voted yesterday, in front of a polling station in Panpet village, Demoso township, Kayah state Picture: REUTERS
Voting unfolded smoothly in Myanmar yesterday, with no reports of violence to puncture a mood of jubilation marking the Southeast Asian nation’s first free nationwide election in 25 years, its biggest stride yet in a journey to democracy from dictatorship.

The party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to win the largest share of votes cast by an electorate of about 30 million people, who chose from among thousands of candidates standing for parliament and regional assemblies.

But a legacy of military rule means she cannot become president after the election, even if her National League for Democracy (NLD) wins a landslide.

Concern arose about the fairness of the election, after activists estimated that up to four million people may be unable to cast a ballot.

And on the eve of the poll, the NLD said a suspiciously large number of extra voting tickets had been issued in some areas, with one family in Yangon getting 38.

Religious tension, fanned by Buddhist nationalists, whose actions have intimidated Myanmar’s Muslim minority, marred the election campaign.

Still, there was a palpable sense of excitement among voters as they went to polling stations, many before dawn.

Suu Kyi’s car inched through a scrum of news photographers outside the Yangon polling station, where the 70-year-old Nobel peace laureate came to vote.

She was stony-faced as bodyguards shouted at people to move aside.

A cry of “Victory! Victory!” went up from the crowd as she went inside.

Khin May Oo, 73, who voted there earlier, said he believed the country was at a turning point, but he was worried about the army: “I’m not sure whether they will accept the election results,” he said.

But in the capital, Naypyitaw, military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing said yesterday there would be no re-run of the last free vote in 1990, when Suu Kyi won but the army ignored the result.

She spent most of the next 20 years under house arrest before her release in 2010.

Officials say the winners of a few parliamentary seats will be announced by the end of yesterday.

A clear overall picture is not expected to emerge until tomorrow.

Suu Kyi is barred from taking the presidency herself under a constitution written by the junta to preserve its power.

But if she wins a majority and is able to form Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since the early 1960s, Suu Kyi says she will be the power behind the new president regardless of a constitution she has derided as “very silly”.

Suu Kyi starts the contest with a sizeable handicap: even if the vote is deemed free and fair, one-quarter of parliament’s seats will still be held by unelected military officers.

To form a government and choose its own president, the NLD, on its own or with allies, must win more than two-thirds of all seats up for grabs.

By contrast, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would need far fewer seats if it secured the backing of the military bloc in parliament.

However, many voters are expected to spurn the USDP, created by the former junta and led by former military officers, because it is associated with the brutal dictatorship that installed President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government in 2011.

An inconclusive result could thrust some of the 91 parties contesting the election, including many representing Myanmar’s myriad ethnic minorities, into a king-maker role. — Reuters

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