YANGON, MYANMAR: Myanmar has sent out a surprisingly broad guest list for elections on Sunday, hoping to showcase its democratic credentials to the world.
The by-election is likely to mark a symbolic turning point by bringing the opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi into Parliament for the first time, an event that would rise hopes for a more representative government after a half-century of repressive military rule.
However, with less than 7 per cent of the chambers' seats contested, the polling will not shift power away from the military-dominated ruling party. Still, the government hopes foreign observers endorse the polling to help lift the country's pariah status. Uncharacteristically, the formerly hermetic country is allowing the US and more than a dozen other countries to send observers to monitor the vote — boosting hopes that this will be Myanmar's freest and fairest election in decades.
Experts caution against setting the bar too high, noting that transparency takes time and that these elections are being held on Myanmar's terms.
"Let's not ask if these elections will be free and fair. Those are big words. Let's focus on if they're credible," said Mr Somsri Hananuntasuk, head of the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections, one of Asia's most respected election watchdogs. "The country is opening bit by bit. There is progress, but there are still problems," Mr Somsri said.
Take for example this unfortunate irony: Just as Myanmar was making headlines last week for its historic invitation to foreign observers, immigration officials were quietly deporting Mr Somsri and two other monitors from her group. After a week in Yangon, she was greeted at her hotel last Wednesday by 10 immigration officials, who questioned her for an hour, scolded her for entering the country on a tourist visa and then escorted her to the airport.
Events like this are what Ms Suu Kyi has called the election's "bumps and pitfalls." She and her opposition party have alleged fraudulent voter lists with names of dead people, vote-buying, harassment, slingshot attacks that injured security guards and odd inconveniences like a rule effectively barring Ms Suu Kyi from holding campaign rallies in stadiums.
These are echoes of past elections, but there is little question that Myanmar has come a long way in a short period of time.
The country's last general election in November 2010 was universally dismissed as a sham. It was Myanmar's first election in two decades and billed by the junta as a key step in the regime's "roadmap to democracy." There was no surprise that it ushered into power a military-backed government and a parliament dominated by military allies.
Fast forward to 2012, the election scene is dramatically different. Ms Suu Kyi was set free shortly after the last election and now dominates the political spotlight. Her picture is now allowed in newspapers, her opposition party hung campaign posters and publicized its platform in state-run media. These and a raft of other reforms have been rolled out at a dizzying pace by the government of the President, Mr Thein Sein, startling even his staunchest critics.
Ms Suu Kyi's celebrity status has bestowed outsized significance on the by-election that will fill only 45 vacant seats in Myanmar's 664-seat national Parliament.
A victory by Ms Suu Kyi and the opposition would do little to alter the balance of power in Parliament but it would give her a voice in government for the first time.