The people of Burma are on Sunday voting in landmark by-elections that could pave the way for the removal of wide-ranging US and European Union sanctions, allowing more companies to participate in the nation’s energy sector.
Polling is under way in forty five vacant constituencies, all of which are being contested by members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Voting for another three seats in restive Kachin State near Burma’s border with China has been suspended indefinitely because of security concerns.
Up for grabs are positions in both the Amyotha Hluttaw (upper house) and Pyithu Hluttaw (upper house) of Burma’s legislature.
Many of the predominantly Buddhist people of Burma are hoping – and privately voicing optimism - that the NLD will prevail in many constituencies.
However, local reports say that voting in four constituencies in townships in the official capital Naypyidaw would be too close to call while the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party is confident of winning in Lashio in the country’s north-east. A total of 17 political parties are fielding 157 candidates in the 1 April by-elections.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is widely expected to win the seat that she is contesting in the township of Kawhmu, about two hours drive from the commercial capital Rangoon. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that even if President Thein Sein offers her a ministerial position, she would decline because Burma’s constitution would require her to give up her constituency seat.
The EU is expected to vote later this month on whether to remove sanctions that have all but halted fresh investment from its member states for years. Key to that decision will be free, fair and transparent by-elections, something which Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly said cannot be guaranteed.
The NLD won a landslide majority in the 1990 general election but Aung San Suu Kyi claimed the military did not allow her to take office, and she has spent much of her time since under detention.
The pro-democracy party boycotted the November 2010 general elections, claiming that the polls would not be free of corruption.