Voters in Myanmar are set to vote in crucial by-elections, the most open in decades, with prominent opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi among those standing.
The Nobel laureate is running in the constituency of Kawhmu, south of Yangon. She planned to tour polling stations there early on Sunday after voting starts at 6am local time (2330 GMT on Saturday), before returning to Yangon later in the day.
She said she did not regret standing for parliament because the polls had boosted people’s interest in politics after decades of outright military rule ended last year.
A carnival atmosphere pervaded in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, one of six constituencies up for grabs in Yangon, on the last day of campaigning on Friday.
“Authorities sent us a blueprint of how to prepare the polling station and we have laid it out exactly as they instructed,” Myint Ngwe, a school teacher who was in charge of the preparations, said.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy [NLD] party is contesting on 44 out of 45 seats, but has complained of irregularities that could undermine the vote.
The NLD won a landslide election victory in 1990 but the junta never allowed it to take office. The party also boycotted the 2010 polls that swept the army’s political proxies to power and were marred by complaints of cheating and intimidation.
“We have done a lot of preparation for April 1. We have polling station representatives and people to provide information, because we want to know what’s going on,” Phyu Phyu Thin, a local NLD candidate, told AFP news agency.
“The result will match people’s desires. The NLD must win.”
A total of 160 candidates from 17 parties, including six new to the political stage, are contesting in the country’s 45 constituencies.
The number of seats at stake is not enough to threaten the military-backed ruling party’s overwhelming majority in parliament but Suu Kyi described the vote as “a step towards step one in democracy”.
The pro-democracy leader, who spent most of the past 22 years as a political prisoner, is contesting for the first time despite criticising the polls as not “genuinely free and fair”.
“What has been happening in this country is really beyond what is acceptable for a democratic election. Still, we are determined to go forward because we think that is what our people want,” Suu Kyi on Friday.
She has accused rivals of vandalising election posters, padding electoral registers and “many, many cases of intimidation”, including two attempts to injure candidates with catapulted projectiles.
The government has for the first time invited teams of foreign observers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN], European Union and the US, and journalists to witness the elections.
Since taking office a year ago, President Thein Sein has carried out reforms including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, easing media restrictions and welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics.