YANGON, Myanmar – Officials across Myanmar counted votes Monday after a historic election that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party is expected to win easily, but its road to forming a government remains filled with hurdles even though the country will move a step closer to greater democracy.
Sunday's vote was billed as the freest ever in this Southeast Asian nation, which was under military rule for almost a half-century and a quasi-civilian government for the last five. Many of the eligible 30 million voters cast ballots for the first time, including Suu Kyi, the epitome of the democracy movement.
Although more than 90 parties contested, the main fight was between Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party, made up largely of former junta members. A host of other parties from ethnic minorities, who form 40 percent of Myanmar's 52 million people, are also running.
"I'm really happy because from what I heard the NLD is winning. I couldn't sleep until 11 or 12 because I was looking everywhere for results," said San Win, a 40-year-old newspaper vendor.
Ballots are being counted at the tens of thousands of polling stations across the country, and results will be relayed by party representatives to their headquarters where a master tally will be kept. The results will also be sent to the central election commission, which will announce them, as they arrive, on Monday.
While Suu Kyi's party is expected to win the highest number of seats, the election will not bring full democracy to this nation. Myanmar's constitution guarantees 25 percent of seats in parliament to the military, and was rewritten to keep Suu Kyi, the country's most popular politician, from the presidency. Suu Kyi, 70, has, however, said she will be the real power behind the president and govern from behind the scenes.
"I think the country will be better if the party we chose or the leader we chose actually becomes the leader," said first-time voter Myo Su Wai on Sunday. "I'm voting for NLD. That's my choice."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement Sunday, congratulated the people of Myanmar for working together "to hold a peaceful and historic poll," although he recognized that the elections "were far from perfect."
He expressed hope that the election will move Myanmar a step closer to democracy.
After taking power in 1962, the junta first allowed elections in 1990, which Suu Kyi's party won overwhelmingly. A shocked army refused to seat the winning lawmakers, with the excuse that a new constitution first had to be implemented — a task that ended up taking 18 years amid intense international pressure. New elections were finally held in 2010, but they were boycotted by the opposition, which cited unfair election laws.
The USDP won by default and took office in 2011 under President Thein Sein, a former general who began political and economic reforms to end Myanmar's isolation and jump-start its moribund economy. But the USDP's popularity, or lack of it, was really tested in a 2012 by-election in which the National League for Democracy won 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested.
Suu Kyi couldn't vote in any of those elections because she was under house arrest or there was no election in her residential area. But she did win a seat in parliament in the by-election.
Thein Sein voted Sunday in the capital, Naypyitaw, and reiterated that the ruling party would respect the results.
Asked by the Irrawaddy online magazine what he would do if his party loses, Thein Sein said: "I have to accept it as it is. ... Whatever it is, we have to accept our voters' desire. Whoever leads the country, the most important thing is to have stability and development in the country."
Even if Suu Kyi's party secures the highest number of seats in the bicameral legislature, it will start with a disadvantage because of the reserved places for the military in the 664-seat parliament.
This means in theory that the USDP, with the military's support, need not win an outright majority to control the legislature. To counter that scenario, the NLD would require a huge win.
After the polls, the newly elected members and the military appointees will propose three candidates, and elect one as the president. The other two will become vice presidents. That vote won't be held before February.
Suu Kyi cannot run for president or vice president because of a constitutional amendment that bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the top jobs. Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband.
The military is also guaranteed key ministerial posts — defense, interior and border security. It is not under the government's control and could continue attacks against ethnic groups. But critics are most concerned about the military's constitutional right to retake direct control of government, as well as its direct and indirect control over the country's economy.
The election was also criticized by international observers because about 500,000 eligible voters from the country's 1.3 million-strong Rohingya Muslim minority were barred from casting ballots. The government considers them foreigners even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Neither the NLD nor the USDP fielded a single Muslim candidate.