YANGON: Vote counting in Myanmar’s landmark election was well underway Monday following a massive turnout that could see Aung San Suu Kyi’s party catapulted to power and the end of decades of military control.
Millions had queued the previous day to cast their ballots in an event heavy with history and filled with emotion.
As the count began in earnest, early indications were of an “80 percent” turnout, according to Union Election Commission deputy director Thant Zin Aung — a figure the opposition believe favours their bid for a majority.
Thousands of supporters — many decked out in the red of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) — gathered outside the party’s Yangon headquarters in the hope of some indication of victory from Suu Kyi.
But the woman known affectionately as “The Lady” did not appear.
Instead NLD official Tin Oo read a message from the party’s figurehead.
“I urge you to wait for the result from your own homes,” he said, adding: “When the result comes out, I want you to accept it calmly.”
Chanting “Amay (Mother) Suu must win, NLD must win!”, the crowd began to thin as the evening wore on with no result in sight.
More than 30 million people were eligible to vote in Myanmar’s freest election for a generation.
The NLD believes a fair vote will power it into government after a decades-long struggle against army dictatorship.
But Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency by the army-scripted constitution, and the NLD faces an uphill struggle because a quarter of seats are still reserved for the military.
In the capital Naypyidaw, President Thein Sein, himself a one-time top-ranking junta general, smiled for the cameras and held up his little finger, stained with purple ink, after voting.
His army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the main obstacle to an NLD victory, and needs only around a third of seats to join up with the military bloc to choose the president.
Many voters remain nervous about how the powerful army will react if it loses, with concerns over the fraud that 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.
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 scenes that offered a vivid reminder of the way she towers over the democracy movement.
But the day belonged to the queues of ordinary 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 with 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 Khine Soe, recounting the moment she cast her vote.
Aspirations for change run high in Myanmar after five decades in which a brutal junta silenced 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, offered cautious optimism, but warned risks remained during vote counting.
Washington welcomed the elections but said they were “far from perfect”, citing the army-reserved seats, disenfranchisement of minorities and the “arbitrary” disqualification of certain candidates.
It is the first election the NLD has contested since 1990, when the party claimed a landslide win 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”.
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.