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Polls Open In Myanmar’s Freest Elections In Decades

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YANGON, Myanmar – Polls opened early Sunday in Yangon and around Myanmar, with many hoping that the landmark election will mark a new era of political cooperation and the installation of veteran democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party further into the political process.

At one polling station in Yangon, the country’s largest city, a small number of people were lined up before sunrise as voting began.

Billed as the freest elections in the country in a quarter-century, there is a sense of hope that the military’s stranglehold on the country’s government will be weakened through a strong showing by the NLD.

Zaw Win, a retired supervisor of engineers, was lined up at daybreak for his chance to vote. A high school student when he experienced his first military coup, he tells CNN he’s been through “so many kinds of government.”

But he is optimistic that this time, his vote will matter.

“Now I vote for the party and for the person I like, he said. “So I am quite happy.”

As he showed off his ink-stained finger — a mark election organizers are using to prevent people from voting more than once — he said that the process was reassuringly straightforward.

“Before, I was worried about the election. But it was very easy.”

Many people appeared to be coming to vote as families.

Twenty-year-old Su Hnin Kyu came to vote with her parents and two older brothers, and the family reveled in the holiday-like atmonshpere. Her 23-year-old brother, Thet Naing, was voting for the first time.

Like many of the people CNN spoke with at this polling station, this family enthusiastically supported Myanmar’s most popular opposition leader, the Nobel-peace prize winning Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thet Naing said he would be happy if Suu Kyi’s NLD wins the election, but also expressed concern about the possibility of election-rigging.

“If it’s not clean we will be sad,” he said.

Sense of belief
Pro-democracy supporters are optimistic that the election could be the beginning of real change in the country, which has been isolated for decades due to its repressive military-dominated government.

At a rally in Yangon last week, Suu Kyi told a rapturous crowd: “Some people say it’s not time for us to achieve real democracy yet.

“But I think it’s just because they don’t want to give it to us. Everyone deserves democracy.”

While the administration of current President Thein Sein has relaxed restrictions, pushing through expansive political and economic reforms and bringing the country out of decades of authoritarian rule and international isolation, watchers say that the elections are still far from free and fair.

Not least is the bloc of seats in the Hluttaw, Myanmar’s parliament, which is earmarked for the military. A full quarter of seats are guaranteed for unelected military representatives. These members also have an effective veto over any proposed constitutional change.

Within U.S. government circles there remains a degree of skepticism towards the vote.

“This is not going to be a high-quality election,” a senior U.S. government official told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The process is going to be fraught … it is slanted toward the ruling elite.”

Outside monitors
The U.S.-based Carter Center sent 50 short-term observers to the country ahead of Sunday’s vote.

“This election is an important one in Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who heads the center. “As impartial observers, (observers are in Myanmar) to report on what we see before, during, and after Election Day, and the extent to which those things meet international standards for democratic elections. We’re honored to be a part of this exciting moment in Myanmar’s history.”

Although the NLD boycotted the last general election, in 2010, the party dominated by-elections in 2012.

“If the election is free and fair, the NLD is going to win the majority of votes,” Aung Zaw, editor of influential Burmese news magazine the Irrawaddy, told CNN. “But it is doubtful that they will be able to form the government.”

Barred from presidency
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Suu Kyi — a national hero who spent nearly 15 years under house arrest — is overwhelmingly her country’s most popular politician.

Under the country’s military-drafted constitution, she is barred from the presidency, due to a rule prohibiting anyone with foreign family members from assuming top office. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, and her two sons have British passports.

“The NLD will contest the election but the prospect of (Suu Kyi) becoming the president is almost zero,” Zaw said.

The president is not directly elected by the public, but chosen by MPs following the vote. Suu Kyi will stand as an MP, and has hinted at a civilian candidate to put forward for the role.

Suu Kyi says she’d be “above the president” if her party wins Sunday’s general elections. She made the comments during a press conference in Yangon on Thursday, and added that there have been irregularities in advance voting, fraud and intimidation — and that the process was falling short of its billing as Myanmar’s first free and fair election in 25 years.

Sunday’s balloting is expected to be the freest since 1990, when the first multi-party election in decades was held.

While the NLD convincingly won that election, the military junta in charge of the country refused to recognize the result.

Polls will stay open Sunday until 4 p.m. local time (4.30 a.m ET). Officials told CNN they expect to have the ballots counted by midnight (12.30 p.m. ET). – CNN

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