Voters in Burma have begun casting ballots in parliamentary elections seen as a crucial test of the country’s democratic reform progress.
Candidates in Sunday polls are vying for 45 seats in the 664-seat parliament in the first by-elections since the new nominally civilian government took office in March of last year.
Main opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the National League for Democracy, is running for the first time since 1990 when her party won a landslide victory in general elections. At the time, the military leaders refused to relinquish power and kept her in some form of detention for most of the next 20 years.
The National League for Democracy is contesting 44 seats. The group boycotted the 2010 elections, the first after two decades in Burma, because their iconic leader and Nobel Laureate was not permitted to run.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest shortly after the November 2010 elections and got actively engaged in the political process. She is widely expected to win because of her popularity.
Whatever the outcome, the by-elections will not give the opposition enough parliamentary power to achieve its goal of revising the constitution, which secures overwhelming power for the military.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said she does not expect Burma’s election to be fair, but said it is still significant.
For the first time, the government has invited a small number of foreign observers and journalists to witness the elections.
The official results are expected about a week after polling.