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Polls Open in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi Casts Vote

Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to cast her ballot during the general election in Yangon November 8, 2015.
Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to cast her ballot during the general election in Yangon November 8, 2015.

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has joined millions of her fellow citizens in casting her vote in what has been described as the country's first relatively free election in a quarter of a century.

Aung San Suu Kyi was greeted by a huge crowd of supporters and reporters at a polling station in Yangon Sunday, in what VOA correspondent Steve Herman, who is in the country's main city, described as "a scene of pandemonium." Aung San Suu Kyi did not speak or acknowledge the crowd as her bodyguards made a path for her to the polling station to cast her vote.

The vote could bring power to the Nobel Peace laureate's National League for Democracy party, which won a landslide victory in the last free elections held in 1990. But the results were ignored by the ruling junta, and Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the next 20 years under house detention.

Although she is leading a vigorous election challenge to the ruling party, she is barred under the current constitution from becoming president herself. Myanmar’s constitution bars anyone with a foreign-born spouse or children from becoming president. The exception apparently was drawn up to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British.

She declared on Thursday, however, that if her party wins the election she would take up a governmental role "above the president," but did not explain her remarks.

NLD needs strong turnout

As many as 30 million people are expected to cast ballots Sunday to select from more than 6,000 candidates for both houses of the national parliament and regional assemblies. The NLD must win more than two-thirds of the contested seats to form a government and choose a president. If it falls short, it will have to form an alliance with a number of smaller political parties to form a government.

By contrast, the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party needs to win only a third of the contested seats to maintain power, since the military automatically maintains a bloc of 25 percent of all parliamentary seats.

Myanmar's military will still maintain a stronghold on power, as it is guaranteed key ministerial posts such as defense, interior and border security under the constitution. It can also regain full control of the government, and maintains control over the country's economy.

Sunday's vote is taking place just four years after the long-ruling military junta handed over power to a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein, who introduced a number of reforms aimed at ending Myanmar's economic and diplomatic isolation.

Concern about voting process

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States is “focused on ensuring that the conduct and outcome of the elections are as credible, transparent and as inclusive as possible.”

Britain's ambassador to Myanmar, Julian Braithwaite, said "a vote that is credible, inclusive and transparent and which represents the will of the people would stand as a lasting legacy" for the current government.

The rights of tens of thousands of people from disenfranchised ethnic and religious communities - including the largely Muslim Rohingya people - is a particular concern, the British envoy said.

Amnesty International said the jailing of peaceful activists, restrictions on free speech and other discrimination against minority groups are a serious problem undermining the electoral process in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

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