Myanmar’s opposition claimed a historic victory Sunday for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in her bid for a seat in parliament, sparking scenes of jubilation among crowds of supporters.
Hundreds of people cheered as a giant screen outside National League for Democracy (NLD) party headquarters in Yangon announced a big by-election win for Suu Kyi, who was locked up by the junta for most of the past 22 years.
The Nobel peace laureate took an estimated 82 percent of the vote in Kawhmu constituency, said NLD senior member Tin Oo, based on the party’s own unofficial tally. Official results were expected within a week.
The party also claimed it had won at least 10 of the other 45 seats at stake in the vote, which cannot threaten the army-backed ruling party’s majority.
“We are so happy and waiting for the other results,” said NLD senior member Mwint Mwint Win.
Observers believe Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government wants Suu Kyi to win a place in parliament to burnish its reform credentials and smooth the way for an easing of Western sanctions.
Many of her supporters had earlier waited for hours in searing heat to catch a glimpse of the 66-year-old, who was running for political office for the first time.
In rural villages dotted between parched fields, people stood in front of their thatched bamboo homes and waved enthusiastically as Suu Kyi’s convoy snaked past, whipping up thick clouds of dust.
A crowd of supporters and journalists mobbed her as she visited a polling station in rural Kawhmu, where her main rival was a former military doctor with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Voters, many in traditional ethnic Karen dress, queued patiently in the heat to cast their votes. In stark contrast to life under the junta, many openly expressed their support and affection for “The Lady”.
“There’s only been one person for us for 20 years,” said Tin Zaw Win.
“We believe in her and want to vote for her. Almost my whole village will vote for Aunt Suu.”
Some people complained that their names were missing from the voter lists, although it was unclear how many were affected.
“I want to vote for Mother Suu but they haven’t given me my ballot paper so I’m here to demand it,” Zin Min Soe told AFP at a polling station.
“They can’t just lose my vote,” he added.
The polls were also marred somewhat by allegations of ballot-paper irregularities, notably that wax had been put over the check box for the NLD that could be rubbed off later to cancel the vote.
It wasn’t immediately clear how widespread irregularities were.
“This is happening around the country,” NLD spokesman Nyan Win told AFP. “I have sent a complaint letter to the union election commission.”
In the run-up to the vote, the party decried alleged intimidation of candidates and other irregularities.
Suu Kyi said on Friday that the vote could not be considered “a genuinely free and fair election” but stopped short of announcing a boycott.
A 2010 general election, won by the military’s political proxies, was plagued by complaints of cheating and the exclusion of Suu Kyi, who was released from seven straight years of house arrest shortly afterwards.
The seats being contested Sunday were made vacant by MPs who joined the government.
The NLD swept to a landslide election victory in 1990, but the generals who ruled the country formerly known as Burma for decades until last year never recognised the result.
A gruelling schedule of rallies and speeches has taken its toll on the opposition leader, who cancelled campaigning in the week before the vote after she fell ill.
Suu Kyi appeared to have recovered her strength by election day, smiling broadly when she emerged just after dawn from the village house where she was staying in Kawhmu, about two hours’ drive from Yangon.
After almost half a century of military rule, the junta in March last year handed power to a new government led by President Thein Sein, one of a clutch of former generals who shed their uniforms to contest the 2010 election.
Since then, the regime has surprised even its critics with a string of reforms such as releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
But remaining political detainees, fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels, and alleged human rights abuses remain major concerns for Western nations which have imposed sanctions on the regime.
Unlike in 2010, the government allowed foreign observers and journalists to witness Sunday’s polls. More than six million people were eligible to vote.