Myanmar vote count begins on Suu Kyi’s day of destiny


Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

Millions voted Sunday in Myanmar's historic election after a massive turnout that could catapult Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party into power and finally end decades of military control. 

After a day marked by euphoric lines of voters -- and a rock star welcome for Suu Kyi as she voted -- the count began after polling stations shut at 4pm local time (0930 GMT).

Early indications were of an "80 percent" turnout, according to Union Election Commission deputy director Thant Zin Aung -- a figure the opposition will hope favours their bid for a majority.

More than 30 million people were eligible to vote in Myanmar's freest election for a generation. 

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 a reminder of her towering presence over the democracy movement.

Her 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 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 ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), an army-backed behemoth stacked with former military cadres, 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 fraud which 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.

State television later carried a live broadcast of the count in several poll stations.

- 'Hands were shaking' -The day belonged to the queues of 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 in between the media scrum.

"I was very excited and so worried that I might do something wrong that my hands were shaking," said fish-seller Kay KhineSoe of the moment she cast her vote.

"I thought if I made a mistake my vote could be lost," the 37-year-old added.

Aspirations for change run high in Myanmar after five decades of a brutal junta smothered 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 head of the European Union's election monitoring team, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, said "we have not seen signs of cheating". 

But he warned risks remained during the transportation and counting of the ballots.

The NLD made allegations of vote-buying by the USDP in one village in the Irrawaddy Delta -- but accusations did not immediately snowball. 

- 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 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 which 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, and the poll will not be held in several localities where fighting between the army and ethnic rebels simmers.

Suu Kyi's supporters, many of whom voted for the first time on Sunday, see an NLD win as a major stride towards the fulfilment of her destiny to lead the country.

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 is allotted 25 percent of all parliamentary seats.

The NLD remained tight-lipped after the vote, although supporters are expected to gather at its Yangon headquarters.

© AFP

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