Voters in Burma’s biggest city, Yangon, turned up in large numbers to cast ballots in nationwide elections that are expected to return to power the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won the last elections in 2015 in a landslide, ending more than five decades of military-dictated rule in the country.
With Burma under threat from a coronavirus surge, mask wearing was mandatory in the queues at polling stations, and many voters also donned plastic face shields and gloves.
Body temperatures were taken and hand sanitising gel was freely dispensed by officials, but social distancing rules were only fitfully observed.
Traditional campaigning ahead of the election was severely limited by social distancing and quarantines in some areas.
“The voter turnout here is more than we expected,” said Zaw Win Tun, an official at Yangon’s Pho Myae polling station.
“I think people are excited to vote, as they would like to escape from the political struggles. They want real democracy.” He did not elaborate, but appeared to be referring to a power struggle between Ms Suu Kyi’s civilian government and the military.
The ability of Ms Suu Kyi’s administration to run the country has been hamstrung by a clause in the 2008 army-drafted constitution giving the military 25% of the seats in Parliament, allowing it to block constitutional reforms.
More than 90 parties are competing for seats in the lower and upper houses of parliament, while there were also elections at the state levels. There were more than 37 million people eligible to vote, including 5 million first-timers.
With the opposition in disarray, Ms Suu Kyi, who is the nation’s leader with the title of state counsellor, remains Burma’s most popular politician. But her government has fallen short of expectations, with economic growth doing little to alleviate widespread poverty and a failure to ease tensions among the country’s fractious ethnic groups.
Ms Suu Kyi, 75, cast her ballot late last month in the capital, Naypyitaw, as citizens 60 years of age and over were encouraged to vote in advance, along with those who were forced by the coronavirus to stay away from their home constituencies.
Her party’s main challenger, as it was five years ago, was the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which has led the opposition in Parliament.
The Election Commission said it would begin to announce results on Monday morning. But it may take up to a week to collect all the votes, some of which will come from remote jungle areas.
The election is widely seen as a referendum on Ms Suu Kyi’s leadership.
“There is no major party really putting an alternative, a credible alternative, forward,” Yangon-based political analyst Richard Horsey said, explaining part of the reason Ms Suu Kyi’s side has a winning hand in Burma’s heartland, where its ethnic Burman majority lives.
Even more important for the ruling party’s prospects, he said, is “the personal support, even love, that many people have for Aung San Suu Kyi herself, almost irrespective of how the government administration performs, how the economy performs and so on”.