UPDATED at 2:15 p.m. EST on 2015-11-08
Millions of voters went to the polls in Myanmar on Sunday in what observers said was largely a smooth and peaceful vote seen as a milestone in the Southeast Asian country's transition from military dictatorship to democracy.
The former British colony also known as Burma, which emerged from nearly 50 years of military dictatorship in 2011, had not had a free and fair nationwide election in a quarter century and suspicions of government vote tampering are running high.
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) had swept a 1990 vote, but the then-ruling junta ignored the results and placed leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for more than a decade.
On Sunday, the 70-year-old Nobel laureate looked stern faced as she voted, thronged by thousands of cheering supporters and a pack of domestic and international media.
Aung San Suu Kyi did not speak to reporters but sent a message through NLD patron Tin Oo to read to supporters outside party headquarters.
"I urge you to wait for the result from your own homes," he said, adding: "When the result comes out, I want you to accept it calmly."
Despite concerns about fairness amid the disenfranchisement of a million minority Rohingya Muslims, disputes over voter lists and overseas voting fraud, and violence in a poll where voting was cancelled in scores of war-torn townships, observers said the election appeared to have gone smoothly.
80 percent turnout
"From the dozens of people we have spoken to since 6 a.m. today, everybody feels they have been able to vote for whoever they wanted to in security and safety," said Durudee Sirichanya, an international observer from the Secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), told Reuters news agency.
Election officials put the turnout at 80 percent of the more than 30 million voters, who joined long lines formed outside polling booths set up in Buddhist temples, schools and government buildings. To prevent fraud, voters' fingers were marked with ink after they cast their ballots.
Online publication The Irrawaddy quoted author and journalist Bertil Lintner, a veteran Myanmar watcher, as saying “it seems like the turnout has been huge.”
“Judging from what I’ve heard and seen, the main impression is that the NLD is going to do extremely well. And that’s not only here in Yangon, I was also in touch with people in parts of the country this afternoon, and the pattern is the same,” Lintner said.
A total of 91 parties are contesting, including many representing Myanmar's ethnic minorities. But the main fight is between Suu Kyi's NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a party set up by the military after it handed power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.
While Myanmar did not conduct public surveys ahead of the elections, observers had generally expected the NLD to dominate the polls, and even some high profile USDP officials have acknowledged that their party faced a tough fight.
Informal, partial results suggested the NLD was faring well in Yangon, Mandalay and the capital, Naypyidaw. But results from the countryside in largely rural Myanmar will take many days to be tallied.
The NLD boycotted a 2010 vote which was not regarded as free or fair, but in the country’s 2012 by-elections, it won 43 out of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested in a race where 46 seats were up for grabs.
Polls stay open later
The USDP had campaigned on a platform of demonstrated reform, saying that Myanmar has made significant strides towards democracy -- ending the country’s global pariah status -- since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power from the former military regime in 2011.
Nyunt Win, the USDP candidate in the Myitkyina Township constituency of Kachin State told RFA he faced “12 competing candidates from 12 parties and I am excited.
“I believe I will win because I have been doing humanitarian and social works for 20 years under the leadership of USDP,” he added.
“I still don’t know who will win, but we expect we will win. If so we'll have to work for people more than before,” Htay Oo, USDP Co-Chairman and candidate in the Hinthata Township constituency of Irrawaddy Division.
Results from the voting, which was slated to end at 4:00 p.m. local time but was extended at many stations, are expected to take as long as two weeks to be tallied, but local media have said a clear picture could emerge by Monday or Tuesday.
While the day was free of election-related violence, leaders of several parties complained of long delays, voter list errors and warned of manipulation of absentee ballots cast in advance.
“The Union Electoral Commission couldn’t correct voter’s list errors and said only 30% of voter’s list is correct,” said Naing Ngwe Thein, chairman of the Mon Democracy Party.
“We also have to worry about advance votes. We have almost one million of military family members and we don’t know what they did to these people’s votes. We don’t think this election would be free and fair one,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
NLD candidates expressed concern that amid a high turnout – seen as benefitting the opposition in the face of built-in ruling party advantages -- the time-consuming voting process would leave many voters stuck in long lines as the polls closed.
“We have about 3,900 people who are going to vote, but we have only one voting room. I don’t think voting will finish in time,” said Thaung Htay Lin, the NLD candidate in the Patheingyi Township constituency of Mandalay Division in northern Myanmar.
“We have been telling people to be patient and have been trying to protect people’s rights to vote by traveling around and helping them,” he told RFA.
“Voting stations are crowed with people and they are very eager to vote and got worried for having no chance to vote in time because voting stations will close at 4 pm,” Nweni Win, the NLD candidate in Phyu Township of Bago Division.
“I told them to be calm and voting stations will open until all people at the station voted,” she added.
Thet Naing Oo, the NLD candidate in Zegone constituency of Bago Division, told RFA there were problems at his local voting stations.
“A group of people with white shirts and white hats came around the stations and did something suspicious,” he said without elaborating.
Ohn Myint, a union minister and USDP candidate in Kyauttan Township constituency in Yangon, said, however: “There is little possibility that voting errors could make any difference in the candidate's final result.”
Mistrust remains high in the country, however.
“The main problem is that nobody trusts the government, so even if they do something right, people don’t trust them and think there must be some kind of devious scheme behind it,” Lintner said in an interview published in The Irrawaddy.
“But I’m not really convinced that they are going to cheat, because there’s so much at stake here,” he said, noting international scrutiny of Myanmar’s vote.
“I cannot prove it, of course, but I think that the government wants this day to be as open, free and transparent as possible, because there’s so much at stake. They can’t really risk it by cheating or with irregularities in the voting,” added Lintner.
Even if Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD wins Sunday’s vote, the 70-year-old Nobel peace laureate cannot become the country’s president under Myanmar’s constitution, drafted by the former military regime in 2008.
The junta constitution reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament for military appointees, and bars Aung San Suu Kyi from taking the highest office because her late husband and sons hold foreign citizenship.
Speaking to reporters in the capital, Naypyidaw, military Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing said the army would not try a repeat of 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi won but the army ignored the result and placed her under house arrest.
Reuters quoted Min Aung Hlaing as telling reporters that in the event of NLD victory, ‘if the people choose them, there is no reason we would not accept it."
Former USDP chairman Shwe Mann -- speaker of parliament who was ousted as chairman of his party in an Aug. 12 reshuffle – told reporters: “I will accept the result of people’s decision. I have to accept it as everybody is watching the result.”
Reported by Kyaw Thu, Khin Khin Ei, Shew Yi Myintzu and Yhi Thiri of RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.