RANGOON: Jubilant Burmese opposition supporters thronged streets in Rangoon last night (Sunday) as preliminary results pointed to sweeping election gains for the party of democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi.
The National League for Democracy seemed poised for power more than 50 years after the military took over the country in a coup and 25 years after the generals ignored its overwhelming victory in the last contested vote.
Voters began to line up well before dawn and waited for several hours in places to cast their ballots as about 80 per cent of the 30?million electorate joined the democratic experiment in the country also known as Myanmar.
The watershed elections were conducted peacefully and largely without incident, bar the media scrum that engulfed Ms Suu Kyi as she arrived at her polling station in Rangoon.
Once the world's most famous political prisoner, the Nobel laureate was expected to address flag-waving crowds who gathered outside the NLD headquarters when polls closed, their exuberance undiminished by a tropical downpour.
But her address did not take place amid reports that Ms Suu Kyi was locked in talks with senior aides to discuss the apparent scale of their breakthrough in the first election since the end of five decades of military dictatorship.
The first official returns will be declared today, but results declared at individual polling stations yesterday evening indicated a strong showing for the NLD and disappointing results for the ruling military-backed party.
"All the indications are that it is looking like a landslide for the NLD," said Larry Jagan, a prominent Rangoon-based commentator on Burmese politics.
Ms Suu Kyi's party needs that landslide to win two thirds of the contested seats to secure a majority in the new parliament because 25 per cent of the places are already allocated to military appointees under the army-drafted constitution.
Even before results were announced, there was a mood of excitement and enthusiasm as the elections unfolded in a country where, until recently, even voicing support for the NLD could result in a long prison term.
Ma Thida, a writer and former aide to Ms Suu Kyi, was among hundreds of former political prisoners who cast their votes yesterday.
The sky was still dark as she arrived with her elderly parents at their Rangoon polling station an hour before the gates would open.
"My feeling now is one of relief and 'so far, so good'," she said as she emerged later with a finger inked in the indelible purple dye that marked a voter.
"We are happy and we have a sense of hope and expectation. Our country now is standing at a fork in the road, and it's really not clear which direction we'll be able to take.
"It gives me goose bumps to see the public involvement and engagement in this election. But we're all aware that anything can happen today and in the days that follow."
She was echoing widely-held concerns that the military-backed ruling party could cling to power via dirty tricks, electoral shenanigans or the post-vote negotiations and horse-trading that may be necessary to form a new government.
Those fears partially eased last night as opposition supporters hoped that a landslide win would force the powerful military to keep to its word to accept the election result. Even if the NLD wins the vote, Ms Suu Kyi is prevented from being nominated for president by a clause barring anyone with close relations with foreign allegiances. Both of her sons are British, as was her late husband.
The NLD leader insisted last week that the clause would be no obstacle to her running the country with an unstated role "above the president".
That comment infuriated the military's political allies. "The president is head of the country - no one is above the president," U Htay Oo, the head of the ruling party told the Nikkei Asian Review over the weekend.
"It would be violating the constitution to appoint and direct the president."
The stand-off could still put the military on a collision course with the woman they held under house arrest for 15 years and who believes it is her destiny to lead her homeland - a role that was violently snatched from her father who was assassinated months before independence in 1948.