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Myanmar vote count underway in historic election

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party expected to secure an easy victory

With tremendous excitement and hope, millions of citizens voted Sunday in Myanmar’s historic general election that will test whether the military's long-standing grip on power can be loosened, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party expected to secure an easy victory.

In a country that was under military rule for almost a half-century, many of the eligible 30 million voters cast ballots for the first time in what was billed as the nation's freest election ever. It was the first time even for Suu Kyi, the epitome of the democracy movement who had defied the junta for decades.

Polling passed smoothly, with no violence or unrest reported. Election monitors called it "a remarkable day" full of excitement and energy.

Vote counting began immediately, and hundreds of supporters gathered under umbrellas at the opposition National League for Democracy party's office hoping to see results. But party functionaries announced that results would not be available until Monday, and that the 70-year-old Suu Kyi would not address the crowd as expected, urging the crowds to return the next day.

"We won't be able to announce the results yet. All I can say is that the NLD is in a very good position," said Tin Oo, a co-founder of Suu Kyi's party. "It will take a while for the results to be announced."

Separately, the election commission said it would begin announcing results Monday at 9 a.m. and would continue throughout the day — and week. It has not said when final results are expected.

"This day we can make a change for the future, for the brighter future for our country," a voter in Yangon, the country's largest city, told Al Jazeera.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, told Al Jazeera: "I think this time around, everybody has agreed to largely play by the rules.

"The concern is not necessarily for today, but the days following this, when issues come up connected to electoral disputes, and how these are resolved."

Wearing her trademark thazin flowers in her hair, a smiling Suu Kyi arrived at the polling station near her lakeside residence, where she was mobbed by hundreds of journalists. She quickly cast her vote and left without speaking to reporters.

Many people lined up in Buddhist temples, schools and government buildings early in the morning to vote, well before a heavy downpour beat down in Yangon an hour before voting ended peacefully in the late afternoon.

And while this election is seen as more inclusive and legitimate compared with the last election five years ago, there are concerns also about the vote's credibility because for the first time about 500,000 eligible voters from the country's 1.3 million-strong Rohingya Muslim minority were barred from casting ballots. The government considers them foreigners even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Neither the opposition National League for Democracy party nor the ruling miltary-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party fielded a single Muslim candidate.

Most Rohingya Muslims live in Rakhine state, where hundreds have been killed since 2012. The United Nations says they are one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world.

Although more than 90 parties are contesting the elections, the main fight is between the National League for Democracy and the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party, made up largely of former junta members. A host of other parties from ethnic minorities, who form 40 percent of Myanmar's 52 million people, are also running.

"I think the country will be better if the party we chose or the leader we chose actually becomes the leader," said first-time voter Myo Su Wai. "I'm voting for NLD. That's my choice."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement Sunday, congratulated the people of Myanmar for working together "to hold a peaceful and historic poll," although he recognized that the elections "were far from perfect" because of such impediments to full democratic government such as reserving large numbers of unelected seats for the military, denying voting rights to the certain minorities, including the Muslim Rohingya, and disqualification of certain candidates.

Still he said, "Millions of people from around the country, many of whom were voting for the first time, seized this opportunity to move one step closer to a democracy that respects the rights of all — a testament to the courage and sacrifice shown by the people of Burma over many decades. "

Kerry expressed hope that the election will move Myanmar a step closer to democracy.

Certainly, though, the election will not bring full democracy to this nation, which spent nearly five decades under brutal military rule and the last five years under a quasi-civilian government. Myanmar's constitution guarantees 25 percent of seats in parliament to the military, and was rewritten to keep Suu Kyi, the country's most popular politician, from the presidency.

There is hope, however, that this election will move Myanmar a step closer to democracy.

After taking power in 1962, the junta first allowed elections in 1990, which Suu Kyi's party won overwhelmingly. A shocked army refused to seat the winning lawmakers, with the excuse that a new constitution first had to be implemented — a task that ended up taking 18 years amid intense international pressure. New elections were finally held in 2010, but the opposition, which cited unfair election laws, boycotted them.

The USDP won by default and took office in 2011 under President Thein Sein, a former general who began political and economic reforms to end Myanmar's isolation and jump-start its moribund economy. But the USDP's popularity, or lack of it, was really tested in a 2012 by-election in which the National League for Democracy won 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested.

Suu Kyi couldn't vote in any of those elections because she was under house arrest or there was no election in her residential area. But she did win a seat in parliament in the by-election.

Thein Sein voted Sunday in the capital, Naypyitaw, and reiterated that the ruling party would respect the results.

Asked by the Irrawaddy online magazine what he would do if his party loses, Thein Sein said: "I have to accept it as it is. ... Whatever it is, we have to accept our voters' desire. Whoever leads the country, the most important thing is to have stability and development in the country."

Even if Suu Kyi's party secures the highest number of seats in the bicameral legislature, it will start with a disadvantage because of the reserved places for the military in the 664-seat parliament.

This means in theory that the USDP, with the military's support, need not win an outright majority to control the legislature. To counter that scenario, the NLD would require a huge win.

Al Jazeera with The Associated Press

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