Suu Kyi eyes historic win in Myanmar elections

Fans featuring Aung San Suu Kyi at an NLD souvenir shop in Yangon.
Fans featuring Aung San Suu Kyi at an NLD souvenir shop in Yangon.AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar's boisterous election campaign drew to a close on 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 that 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.

Late Friday, Thein Sein, who has pegged the election as the centrepiece of reforms, used a broadcast on state television to reassure the electorate that the outcome of the poll will not be disputed.

"The government and Tatmadaw (army) will respect the results of the free and fair election," he said.

In Yangon, political parties pulled down their posters while residents removed stickers and flags from cars, anxious to meet a midnight deadline on campaigning, a sign of the nervousness that pervades Myanmar after years of arbitrary military rule.

But Suu Kyi's supporters remained buoyant.

"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 has often chosen hard pragmatism over the steely idealism of her house arrest years.

But the 70-year-old is still revered by the nation's pro-democracy camp and garlanded by the international community for her long, selfless struggle.

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.

With the constitution reserving 25 per cent of all parliamentary seats for military appointees, the NLD must take 67 per cent 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.

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.

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.

Bouts of religious violence have left scores dead since 2012 - the majority from Myanmar's Muslim minority. 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.