Pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi casts vote in historic Burma election

Published: Sunday 8th November 2015 by The News Editor

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Burma has gone to the polls in historic elections that will test whether popular mandate can loosen the military’s long-standing grip on power, even if opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party secures a widely-expected victory.

People lined up in Buddhist temples, schools and government buildings to cast their votes in what election monitors called “a remarkable day” full of excitement and energy.

Among the early arrivals was Oxford-educated Nobel Peace laureate Ms Suu Kyi – the first time she has voted in an election.

She was under house arrest during the 1990 polls that her party won, but which were rejected by the ruling junta. She was still under house arrest when the next elections were held in 2010, which her party boycotted, and she did not vote in 2012 by-elections.

Wearing her trademark Thazin flowers in her hair, a smiling Ms Suu Kyi, 70, arrived at the polling station in Rangoon where she was mobbed by hundreds of journalists. She quickly cast her vote and left without speaking to reporters.

“In general, these elections are important because they are the first real indicator of whether the democratic transition is going to take a big step forward or remain in a quasi-civilian middle ground for years to come,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian and government adviser.

About 30 million people are eligible to vote for more than 90 parties that are contesting. The main fight is between the National League for Democracy, led by Ms Suu Kyi, and the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party, made up largely of former junta members. A host of other parties from ethnic minorities, who form 40% of the country’s 52 million people, are also running.

“I’ve am so excited to come to vote. I couldn’t sleep the whole night, so I came here early,” said Ohnmar, a 38 year-old woman who goes by one name. “I came to vote because I want change in my country. I think Aung San Suu Kyi will win if this is a real free and fair election.”

The election is seen as Burma’s best chance in decades to move towards greater democracy if Ms Suu Kyi’s party secures the highest number of seats in the parliament and gets the mandate to govern. But the NLD starts with a handicap – of the 664 seats in parliament, 25% are reserved for the military.

This means in theory the USDP, with the military’s support, need not win an outright majority to control the legislature. To counter that scenario, the NLD would require a huge win.

That may not be far-fetched, given Ms Suu Kyi’s popularity, but winning the election would only be the first step towards full power for her party. After the polls, the newly-elected members and the military appointees will propose three candidates and elect one as the president. The other two will become vice presidents. That vote will not be held before February.

Ms Suu Kyi cannot run for president because of a constitutional amendment that bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the top job. Her late husband and sons are British.

The military is also guaranteed key ministerial posts – defence, interior and border security. It is not under the government’s control and could continue attacks against ethnic groups.

But critics are most concerned about the military’s constitutional right to retake direct control of government, as well as its direct and indirect control over the country’s economy.

Richard Horsey, an independent Burma analyst, said that given the powers it has, the military will not be too perturbed about allowing transfer of power to the NLD if it wins.

“But that’s not to say the relationship between the new administration and the military will necessarily be a strong one. It’s very difficult to imagine that anyone will be running the country without having the support of the military,” he said.

There are concerns about the vote’s credibility, because for the first time about 500,000 eligible voters from the country’s 1.3-million-strong Rohingya Muslim minority have been barred from casting the ballot.

The government considers them foreigners even though they have lived in Burma for generations. Neither the NLD nor the USDP is fielding a single Muslim candidate.

Published: Sunday 8th November 2015 by The News Editor

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