, YANGON, Nov 6 – Myanmar’s boisterous election campaign draws to a close Friday, two days before milestone polls that could finally propel Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party to power after a decades-long struggle against the military.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is eyeing an outright majority at Sunday’s general election, the first the party has contested since 1990.
Myanmar was ruled for half a century by a brutal and isolationist junta which crushed pro-democracy movements through a combination of violent crackdowns and political chicanery.
But in 2011 the military unexpectedly ceded power to a quasi-civilian government led by former top-ranking general President Thein Sein.
The wave of reforms that followed loosened the military chokehold on the nation.
A free press has flourished since, most political prisoners have been released and the economy is creeping back to life in lockstep with the rollback of most international sanctions.
But the ruling, army-backed Union and Solidarity Development Party (USDP) is the main obstacle to a historic NLD win.
In Yangon early Friday residents were removing party stickers and flags from cars, anxious to meet a midnight deadline on campaigning, in a sign of the nervousness that pervades Myanmar after years of arbitrary military rule.
But spirits among Suu Kyi’s supporters were high.
“The NLD is the only party that can make our hopes come true,” Tun Tun Naing, 39, told AFP, explaining his loyalty to the party pivots on its leader’s star power.
“Mother Suu” has received a rock star welcome by waves of red-clad supporters as she campaigned across the country.
Detractors say her reputation as a human rights icon has diminished in recent years as she plunged herself into Myanmar’s febrile politics, often choosing hard pragmatism over the steely idealism of her house arrest years.
But the 70-year-old remains revered by the nation’s pro-democracy camp and garlanded by the international community for her long, selfless struggle.
She served a total of 15 years house arrest under the junta and steered the party through repeated violent crackdowns.
Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency by an army-scripted constitution, but says she will nevertheless run the government if her party wins.
A win for the NLD will represent “a great leap into democracy,” she said in her final press conference on Thursday.
– Expectations soar –
With the constitution reserving 25 percent of all parliamentary seats for military appointees, the NLD must take 67 percent of all contested seats in order to claim a majority.
In an election with 91 parties competing, including across restive ethnic areas, its victory is far from assured and the NLD has been burned before by army dirty tricks.
In 1990 it romped home at polls, only for the generals to ignore the result and tighten their iron grip on the country.
Suu Kyi has raised concerns that poll fraud and voting irregularities are already marring voting in some areas.
She has also set herself on a collision course with the military, declaring an NLD majority would see her take a role “above the president”, irrespective of the charter.
That document bars anyone with foreign children or spouse from the top office — Suu Kyi’s two sons are British passport holders as was her late husband, who died while she was under house arrest.
– Horse-trading –
Election authorities are expected to release unofficial results within 48 hours of the polls closing. The NLD will also mark its own scorecard.
Whoever wins, the new government will not take its place in parliament until February.
Weeks of political horse-trading are expected if there is no outright winner with fears instability could fill the void.
“The NLD can’t go it alone, they will need allies,” said Khin Zaw Win, of the Tampadipa Institute, a Yangon-based political think tank.
Observers say any thwarted hopes of the democracy movement could turn to protest and even violence.
Police have already tightened security in the Yangon region, putting it on “orange alert” for the election period stretching until next weekend, state media reported Friday.
Unrest has already threatened to unpick the democratic gains of recent years.
Bouts of religious violence have left scores dead — the majority from Myanmar’s Muslim minority — since 2012.
A hardline Buddhist movement is also on the rise while several long-running ethnic rebellions are active on the country’s border areas.
The economy faces major hurdles, especially in the rural heartlands where there is none of the consumer glitz that now shimmers over Yangon.
The former junta sunk the economy, leaving more than third of the population below the poverty line.
The government also retains its repression reflex and President Thein Sein has ominously warned that rapid change may result in civil unrest.