YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar on Wednesday announced Nov 8 as the date for a historic general election set to be the first contested by Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition in a quarter of a century.
The announcement from the country’s election commission fires the starting gun for the much-anticipated poll in the former junta-run nation, which has launched a series of reforms since the end of outright military rule in 2011.
The vote, seen as a crucial test of the country’s democratic progress, will determine the elected contingent in the fledgling parliament with a president selected by the legislature later. But Suu Kyi is barred by the constitution from taking the top job.
The Nobel laureate’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party did not immediately confirm it would participate in the polls, although it is widely expected to make huge gains at the ballot box.
“We cannot say whether we will take part right now. We need to hold a meeting to make a decision,” spokesman Nyan Win told AFP.
The NLD has gone house-to-house in recent days urging people to check official voter lists and raising concerns that those displayed across the country are riddled with inaccuracies.
Election officials on Wednesday conceded that the lists contain errors, blaming technical faults and staff shortages but insisting that there is still time to iron out many of the flaws.
The Union Election Commission said on its website that the parliamentary election would take place on November 8, a Sunday, with candidates given between July 20 and August 8 to register.
The United States welcomed the announcement.
“We think that a credible parliamentary election is an important step,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said at a daily briefing, adding that the US was providing technical assistance and funding to support the polls.
'VOTING IS IMPORTANT'
For Myanmar’s roughly 30 million voters the election presents a rare chance to cast their votes in a nationwide poll contested by the country’s main opposition.
The NLD won national polls in 1990 by a landslide, while Suu Kyi was under house arrest. But it was prevented from taking power by the military, who plunged the country into isolation for decades.
The democracy icon spent some 15 years under house arrest and was also locked up during the last general election in 2010, which was boycotted by the NLD and marred by accusations of cheating.
But the veteran campaigner and 44 of her party members now sit in parliament following a 2012 by-election held as part of sweeping reforms under a quasi-civilian government dominated by former generals that replaced nearly half a century of military rule.
“I will vote for the party that will do good for the country,” Kyaw Kyaw Naing, a sailor, told AFP in downtown Yangon.
Retired soldier Maung Nai said it would be his third time voting in a nationwide poll. “Voting is important,” he said.
The current government under President Thein Sein, a former general, has been credited with ending draconian media censorship, freeing political prisoners and launching economic reforms that have seen the lifting of most Western sanctions.
But Suu Kyi and rights campaigners have increasingly warned that reforms have stalled or even reversed in some areas, with dozens of student protesters behind bars and the tightening of media freedoms.
Last month she vowed not to “back down” from the election despite defeat in a parliamentary vote aimed at ending the military’s effective veto on constitutional change.
Myanmar’s parliament continues to be dominated by the army, with a quarter of the seats reserved for unelected soldiers. This provision means any major charter change needs a majority of more than 75 percent – giving the military the final say.
The result of the recent vote virtually extinguished Suu Kyi’s chances of the presidency at this stage because of a provision excluding those with foreign children from the top office. Her sons are British.
With Suu Kyi barred from the top job and no obvious second candidate within the NLD, observers predict the party could end up supporting a presidential candidate outside its ranks.
Experts fear that horsetrading between the election and the announcement of presidential candidates several months later could trigger instability in the nation, where the military has a history of crushing dissent.
“If we won a majority, we can arrange to form a government with other people... We need to compromise,” said Nyan Win in an interview earlier Wednesday.
He said people in Myanmar were “very disappointed” that Suu Kyi’s route to the presidency remains blocked.
The NLD, which has come under fire for failing to outline specific policy ideas as the poll looms, Wednesday said it was poised to release a much-awaited statement on the economy, health, security and education.