Poll workers in Myanmar began counting votes on Sunday in an election criticized by rights groups and widely expected to see the party of Aung San Suu Kyi win another five-year term.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide in 2015, sparking widespread hopes for a new democratic era in a country that was ruled by a military dictatorship for some 50 years.
This year observers expect she will win again, but by a smaller margin as voters in the country’s ethnically diverse border regions turn against her.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has faced criticism in the country and abroad after she failed to rein in military aggression against ethnic minorities during her time in power.
There was a higher than expected turnout in some townships in the main city of Yangon, local media reported, despite a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the country.
Authorities temporarily lifted stay-at-home orders in several areas of the country to allow people to go to the polls.
Late October Suu Kyi joined other voters in casting her ballot early as part of measures aimed at reducing crowding on polling day to curb the spread of the virus.
The NLD needs to secure more than two thirds of elected seats across both houses of parliament in order to elect the next president – who would then form a cabinet – without any help from other parties.
A quarter of the legislature’s 664 seats are reserved for unelected military MPs under a widely opposed 2008 constitution that the military wrote to preserve its power before beginning political reforms.
Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president under the same constitution, but now serves as state counsellor, a role akin to prime minister which was created to help her lead through a puppet president.
More than 1.5 million people, most of them in conflict-torn Rakhine state, were stripped of the right to vote last month when authorities cancelled elections in regions where they said fighting between insurgents and the military made it too dangerous.
The election commission faced widespread criticism for the cancellations, which will leave 22 national parliamentary seats empty and were ordered mostly in regions where rival Rakhine parties were expected to beat the NLD.
“This election will be a slam dunk for Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, a pressure group focused on Myanmar.
“Which makes it all the more concerning that she is acting undemocratically, misusing government authority to disadvantage opposition parties,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are also unable to vote after being disenfranchised ahead of the 2015 election.
Human Rights Watch last month said Myanmar’s election was “fundamentally flawed” because of mass disenfranchisement, as well as censorship of smaller parties’ campaign speeches.