YANGON (REUTERS) - Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi kicked off campaigning for the first free general election since the end of military rule, saying it would be a crucial turning point and called on the global community to monitor the outcome.
In a video message posted on her National League for Democracy’s (NLD) Facebook page on Tuesday (Sept 8), Suu Kyi said elections should be free and fair, but “even more important” would be the transition period that follows.
The NLD is expected to win the election, which marks a major shift in Myanmar’s political landscape, giving the platform to democratic activists shut out of public life during nearly half a century of strict military rule that ended in 2011.
The NLD won general elections in 1990 in a landslide, but the junta did not recognise the result.
“For the first time in decades, our people will have a real chance of bringing about real change. This is a chance that we cannot afford to let slip,” said the opposition leader. “A smooth and tranquil transition is almost more important than a free and fair election,” said Suu Kyi, wearing a traditional Burmese green dress with a pink scarf.
The campaign begins less then a month after a major presidential contender and opponent of President Thein Sein, powerful parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, was removed as ruling party leader in a dramatic shake-up of the political establishment.
Shwe Mann’s close relationship with Suu Kyi was regarded with suspicion by the military. Thein Sein’s move has stoked fears that his government and its allies will resist any bid to push them from power even if the opposition wins big.
“Please help us by observing what happens before the elections, during the elections, and, crucially, after the elections,” Suu Kyi said.
The Nobel laureate will meet her supporters on Thursday (Sept 10) in the eastern Kayah region where powerful Minister of the President’s Office Soe Thein, the architect of Thein Sein’s economic reforms, is running for a seat in the election.
Her appearance is a gesture of confidence that the NLD can defeat the president’s closest supporters and their ruling, army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The ballot will determine representatives of the bicameral parliament and regional chambers for five-year terms.
The upper and lower houses will both nominate a presidential candidate, who must secure the support of a majority of members, and the military – which under the junta-drafted constitution holds a quarter of the seats – will nominate a third.
Parliament will then vote on which of the three candidates will be president and the president will form the government.
“It’s really the president and the president’s administration, rather than the biggest party in parliament, that determines what happens next in the reform process,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst and a former UN official in Myanmar. "That’s the real question.”
The constitution effectively bars Suu Kyi from becoming president, even if the NLD wins a majority, and it also gives the army a veto over constitutional change.
The NLD’s power in parliament will depend on whether it has enough members to nominate a presidential candidate on its own. With few credible opinion polls in the impoverished country, that is unclear.
The USDP, which is dominated by military and civil servants who retired to become candidates, will be the NLD’s biggest opponent.
The last general election was held under military rule in 2010 and widely condemned as rigged in favour of the USDP, which includes remnants of the old regime and business allies, and it is expected to lose a significant number of seats.
Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time of 2010 vote and her party did not take part, but she was released six days later.
The NLD agreed to join the quasi-civilian system in 2012 and later won 43 seats in parliament in by-elections.
Suu Kyi is standing in the constituency of Kawhmu, a southern delta town outside the biggest city, Yangon.