BANGKOK/YANGON - Myanmar started vote counting on Sunday (Nov 8) in the country's second election since military rule ended in 2011.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, millions voted, with long lines outside polling booths, which opened at 6am local time.
The ruling National League for Democracy party is widely expected to triumph again. The polls are seen more as a barometer of public satisfaction on its first-term performance under leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with the country's military.
Television broadcasts showed early ballots being counted in the presence of candidates, election officers and observers. Official results could come as soon as late on Sunday.
In Yangon, officials ensured social distancing at voting booths and temperature checks were taken. Masks and face shields were handed out to those entering the voting area.
Just over 37 million people were eligible to vote and more than 5,000 candidates from dozens of political parties vied for 1,117 seats at the central parliament and regional assemblies, according to the Union Election Commission.
Casting his vote in the capital Naypyitaw on Sunday, Myanmar's powerful military chief Min Aung Hlaing told reporters: "I will accept people's wishes after election results come out."
It was a climbdown from the hawkish stance he adopted last week, publicly rebuking the election commission and government and refusing to commit to accepting the result.
"We cannot deny it," the senior general said on Sunday, appearing to relent. "We must accept it. We need to think how we can address people's grievances."
Despite ceding its direct rule to a parliamentary system in 2011, the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is called, continues to wield significant influence via its quota of 25 per cent of all parliamentary seats and control of the defence, border affairs and home ministries.
Its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is also the biggest challenger to the NLD in government.
Ms Suu Kyi, who side-stepped military-crafted restrictions by adopting the title of state counsellor shortly after her 2015 triumph, told voters last Thursday that democracy remained Myanmar's best bet despite its flaws: "Every vote is important because it creates your own destiny."
The former political prisoner rode a wave of optimism in 2015 to reap a landslide victory, but has since struggled to maintain momentum amid disappointment from ethnic minorities and international criticism for her defence of the Tatamdaw against allegations of genocide.
The pandemic is expected to shrink Myanmar's economic growth from 6.8 per cent last year to 0.5 per cent this year, according to the World Bank. As of Saturday night, Myanmar has logged 60,348 cases of Covid-19 infections and 1,396 deaths.
Mr Kan Myint Tun, 38, was among those voting on Sunday morning.
"This election is 100 per cent important, so people risked their lives to come and vote," the Yangon-based company manager told The Straits Times.
"I am not satisfied with the NLD's performance over these past five years, as some of their members of parliament and ministers are not qualified. But I want to give them another chance, so that they can finish their projects," he said.
It is still not clear if overall turnout will surpass the 2015 record of 69 per cent.
But Ms Mya Nandar Thin, executive director of New Myanmar Foundation, told The Straits Times: "Despite Covid-19, voters dared to come out and exercise their rights. That is impressive."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ZIN NO NO ZAW