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NAYPYITAW, Myanmar – President Thein Sein, the archrival of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, voted Sunday in Myanmar's grandiose capital, built from scratch by the military and symbolic of its half century of iron-fisted rule over the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.
A not-unlikely victory by democracy candidates in this bastion of soldiers and civil servants would inflict a humiliating blow to Thein Sein's military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and the generals, many of them resident here and who still exercise decisive behind-the-scenes control in Myanmar.
The 71-year-old president, making no comment to the media, cast his ballot at a high school near his opulent villa and the vast 664-seat Parliament from which the country's next leader will emerge. Thein Sein has served as president since 2011, instituting tentative reforms but still widely viewed as beholden to the military for his power. Born of humble origins, he rose through army ranks to become a senior general and a military-appointed prime minister.
Waiting to cast their ballots at the school polling station were mostly government officials and employees who were reluctant to reveal their political colors or say little beyond that they were excited to be voting in a free election and hoped for positive change in their country.
Khin Kyi Htun, a 30-year-old Parliament staffer, wearing a green blouse finally revealed that she was "voting green," the USDP color.
Only one person interviewed, a 25-year-old woman who also works in the Parliament, said in a whisper that she had seen Suu Kyi at work in the legislature and was "very proud of her." She would vote for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, she said, declining to give her name.
"Lion or peacock? I won't say. I just want a good leader," said Thin Myint, a deputy director-general in the Home Ministry, referring to the USDP's logo — a mythical lion — and the NLD's peacock symbol.
Monitors from the European Union and the South Korean embassy were on hand to witness voting at the school.
Gen. Than Shwe, who headed the junta for nearly two decades until 2011, slipped into a small voting booth with his wife in an outlying village Saturday. He is still regarded as a puppet master when it comes to major decisions on which direction Myanmar should take.
As expected in this well-regulated region, the early polling for 10 seats — eight for the lower house and two for the upper house — was sober and restrained and security was minimal. Only two unarmed policewomen were stationed below the hilltop school.
Although the USDP will almost certainly win in constituencies where civil servants and soldiers dominate, local observers say Suu Kyi's party may well emerge on top in others.
Both major parties launched vigorous campaigns, with the NLD fielding a strong candidate in Zeya Thaw, a handsome hip-hop artist imprisoned for three year after his thinly veiled lyrics attacking the junta became popular. Out of jail, he was elected to Parliament and became a close Suu Kyi aide. At a recent rally that drew some 30,000 supporters, the 34-year-old politician sang a song he and Suu Kyi had co-written, carrying the basic message of "vote for us."
He is being opposed by USDP's Wai Lwin, a retired general.
Naypyitaw was proclaimed Myanmar's capital in 2005, although Yangon, 320 kilometers (200 miles) to the south, remains the primal city in every way but administratively.
However, given its powerful tenants, the capital is endowed with much that the rest of the country lacks — decent housing, around-the-clock electricity and a fine water supply, Wi-Fi internet and superb roads, some as wide as 30 lanes and virtually traffic free.
Although it has grown somewhat in population, vast areas of the Naypyitaw, translated as "Abode of the King," are occupied by scrubland, forests and empty lots. Forty times the area of Washington, D.C., it is dotted with enormous public buildings and luxury hotels that seem incongruous in one of the world's poorest countries.
To date no embassies have moved here from Yangon.
Many Burmese believe Than Shwe, the capital's prime architect, followed the examples of ancient kings who believed changing capitals was auspicious and consulted astrologers before giving the command.
He and other generals live in a secluded compound. A restricted military zone is said to contain bunkers and tunnels with the wide highways designed to take aircraft in case of need.