Vote count under way after historic Myanmar election

First openly contested poll in 25 years held as country makes key transformation from military rule to democracy.

Myanmar is counting ballots after voting ended in the country’s first openly contested parliamentary election in more than 25 years.

Excitement ran high as voters had the chance on Sunday to decide if the military-backed ruling party will hold on to power, or hand over leadership to the main opposition led by the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Voter turnout was around 80 percent, the election commission said, with around 30 million voters who chose from thousands of candidates.

Although the outcome will not be clear for at least 36 hours, a densely packed crowd blocked a busy road beside the headquarters of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Yangon as they cheered and waved red flags.

‘Brighter future’

Polling passed smoothly, with no violence or unrest reported.

“This day, we can make a change for the future – for the brighter future for our country,” a voter in Yangon, the country’s largest city, told Al Jazeera.

First-time voters excited to have their say

Many started  lining up at booths across Yangon well in advance of polls opening at 6am local time.

It took up to an hour for some to make it through the line and into the voting centres.

“This election is seen as more inclusive and legitimate compared with the last election five years ago,” Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi reported from Yangon.

“International observers have been allowed in. People who didn’t bother voting in the 2010 election are turning up to cast their ballots.”

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, told Al Jazeera: “I think this time around, everybody has agreed to largely play by the rules.

“The concern is not necessarily for today, but the days following this, when issues come up connected to electoral disputes, and how these are resolved.”

Suu Kyi votes

As Suu Kyi turned up to vote in Yangon, her supporters repeatedly shouted, “Mother Aung San Suu Kyi”.

Her party won the election in 1990, but the military overruled the decision and put her under house arrest. She spent much of her time between 1989 and 2010 in detention.

Since her release after the 2010 election, she has led protests for reform.

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The military government handed power to a semi-civilian government in 2011, but the army still dominates politics after decades in power.

A quarter of seats in parliament are reserved for military appointees, and the army will keep control of three large ministries, including that of home affairs.

The parliament chooses the president. Suu Kyi is barred from the post.

Rohingya excluded

Despite the poll being hailed as a breakthrough for democracy, there are some flaws.

About 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims are excluded from the vote.

Muslims face marginalisation in elections

Many of them came from Bangladesh generations ago, but Myanmar’s government treats them as foreigners, and does not officially recognise them.

Most live in Rakhine state, where hundreds have been killed since 2012. The UN says they are one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world.

Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Sittwe in Rakhine state, said many in the camp he visited were frustrated by the fact they cannot vote – but also slightly hopeful.

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“The people I’ve spoken to say that if they could vote, they’d probably vote for Aung San Suu Kyi party even though she and her party have not come out to support the Rohingya or spoken out against the crimes they have suffered over the last few years,” our correspondent said.

“They say a change would be good, that it can’t get worse than it’s been under the current government.” 

There are also seven townships and hundreds of villages where voting did not take place because of security concerns.

A voter gets an ink mark to signify that he has cast his ballot [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]
A voter gets an ink mark to signify that he has cast his ballot [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Suu Kyi’s NLD issued a statement on Sunday, accusing the ruling USDP of loaning $100 to households with the promise that they do not need to pay it back if the party wins.

While Suu Kyi is barred by the current constitution from becoming president – her children are foreign nationals – an NLD majority would also allow her to manoeuvre politically, paving the way for constitutional amendments, and eventually an appointment to the presidency.

Robertson of Human Rights Watch added: “It’s important that the government understand that they must recognise civil and political rights. One of those civil and political rights is the right of the people to periodically engage in determining who their government will be. And we hope that that democratic spirit will continue going forward from here.”

Ted Regencia in Yangon contributed to this report.  Follow him on Twitter  for the latest updates.

Votes are being counted [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]
Votes are being counted [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]


Source: Al Jazeera