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Voting began on Sunday in Burma’s first free nationwide election in 25 years, the Southeast Asian nation’s biggest stride yet in a journey to democracy from dictatorship.
The party of opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to win the largest share of votes cast by an electorate of around 30 million, who will choose from among thousands of candidates standing for parliament and regional assemblies.
But the legacy of military rule means she cannot become president after the election even if her National League for Democracy (NLD) wins a landslide.
There were concerns ahead of the election about irregularities after it emerged that around 4 million people would be unable to cast a ballot, and religious tensions – fanned by Buddhist nationalists whose actions have intimidated Burma’s Muslim minority – marred the campaign.
Still, there was a palpable sense of excitement among voters as they went to the polls.
“I’ve done my bit for change, for the emergence of democracy,” said 55-year-old former teacher Daw Myint at a polling station in Rangoon, where she cast a vote for the NLD. “I do hope everything goes well in this historic event.”
Results from the one-day election are expected to come in slowly: officials say the winners of a few parliamentary seats will be announced by the end of Sunday, but a clear picture is not expected until Monday evening at the earliest.
Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi won the last free vote in 1990, but the military ignored the result. She spent most of the next 20 years under house arrest before her release in 2010.
She 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 Burma’s first democratically elected government since the 1960s, Suu Kyi says she will be the power behind the new president regardless of a constitution she has derided as “very silly”.
New comer to democracy
Suu Kyi starts the contest with a sizeable handicap in parliament: 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, 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 parties representing Burma’s myriad ethnic minorities into a king-maker role, bringing them closer to the centre of power after years on the fringes.
Until just a few years ago a pariah state, Burma has little experience organising elections.
Underlining the infancy of its democracy, a survey released on Saturday by the Mizzima media group showed that just 29 percent of voters were familiar with candidates in their areas.
In a pre-election speech on Friday, President Thein Sein acknowledged that organising the vote was a challenge and stressed the government’s commitment to ensuring a credible vote, with more than 10,000 observers scrutinising the process.
Security has been tightened around the country, with 40,000 specially trained police dispatched to polling stations, and some restaurants and markets have been closed in Rangoon, the country’s largest city.
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