Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party claimed Sunday that she has won a seat in parliament in landmark elections under the watch of a select group of international observers.
The victory claim was displayed on a giant digital screen above her National League for Democracy’s (NLD) headquarters in Rangoon where jubilant supporters cheered the news.
“Victory for us; we have won!,” some of them shouted after voters thronged makeshift polling stations at schools and religious and community centers to cast their votes for 45 parliamentary seats.
Aung San Suu Kyi advised NLD members and supporters to remain calm, saying that any party success is based on public support.
She also asked them to respect rival parties while celebrating.
“It is natural that the NLD members and supporters are happy now…but avoid making the others unhappy,” she said.
The Election Commission has said that it would announce the official results in about a week as it received a deluge of complaints of voting irregularities from the NLD.
Balance of power
The election results will not change the balance of power in Burma as the seats contested in the polls make up a small fraction of the 664 seats in national Parliament, 80 percent of which are already controlled by the military-backed ruling party and the armed forces itself.
The by-elections were called to fill seats made vacant by members of parliament who had joined the government.
Still, the elections are significant.
Foreign governments including the U.S. and EU have hinted that they would consider lifting some of the long-running sanctions against the country if the by-elections are conducted freely and fairly.
Aung San Suu Kyi was estimated by the party to have taken more than 80 percent of the vote in the rural Kawhmu constituency where her main rival was a former military doctor with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The NLD contested 44 of the 45 seats up for grabs in Sunday’s by-elections and party officials believe it is leading in all the constituencies despite the alleged irregularities.
“Voting went peacefully in Kawhmu,” an Election Commission official told RFA, saying 87,716 voters were eligible to cast their votes in the closely-watched constituency.
Some NLD candidates charged that wax had been applied over the NLD tick-box on ballot papers to prevent voters from choosing the party.
“I removed the wax using my shirt and then I ticked the box for the NLD,” one voter told RFA.
Thousands of voters also found their names missing from the electoral rolls.
In the Launglon Township seat, the names of 5,000 voters were missing from the rolls while in the Kyunsu township, some 2,000 names had disappeared.
“In one instance, the whole village was missing,” Tin Tin Yee, the NLD candidate for the Kyunsu Township, told RFA.
Than Ngwe, the NLD candidate for the Kalaw Township, charged that USDP agents were distributing ballot papers together with 3,000 kyats (U.S. $4) to voters near polling booths, clearly breaching election laws.
Washington and the European Union gave cautious support to the elections.
“The United States congratulates the people who participated, many for the first time, in the campaign and election process,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters after a meeting in Istanbul on the Syrian conflict.
She urged the Burmese authorities to adopt a transparent electoral system that would address any voting irregularities.
“It is too early to know what progress of recent months means and whether it will be sustained. There are no guarantees for what lies ahead for the people of Burma,” foreign news agencies quoted Clinton as saying.
An EU official invited to observe the vote hailed “very encouraging” signs at the roughly dozen polling stations her team visited.
“However, that’s definitely not enough to assume that it is indicative of how the process was conducted in other parts of the country and certainly not enough to talk about credibility of elections,” Malgorzata Wasilewska said, according to Agence France-Presse.
For the 66-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi herself, the election is a significant milestone in her political career. The Nobel laureate had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest before her release in November 2010.
She is running for a seat in parliament for the first time since her party was blocked from taking power after winning 1990 elections.
The military junta handed over power in March last year to a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein, a former general who has launched initial reforms and a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi.
The reforms, which included the release of political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and a managed float of the kyat currency, are the most dramatic since the military took power in a 1962 coup in the former British colony.
Aung San Suu Kyi said on the eve of polling that the credibility of the by-elections had been marred by irregularities but that her party would forge ahead with the polls.
“While we recognize that even in well established democracies there are irregularities and misdemeanors when elections take place, [those that] have been happening in this country are really beyond what is acceptable for a democratic election,” she said.
She said her NLD, which boycotted 2010 elections on the grounds they were neither free nor fair, would go ahead with the polls despite the unfair conditions because the Burmese people were eager to participate in the political process.
“We are determined to go forward because we think this is what our people want,” she said.
Reported by Khim Maung Soe and Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Ingjin Naing. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.