Myanmar has set November 8 as the date for a landmark general election
NEW: Aung San Suu Kyi says she will stand for election
However, she is barred from the presidency
Myanmar’s pro-democracy camp has been out in force ahead of a landmark general election due to take place Sunday, with supporters of the country’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gathering in their thousands at a final, massive rally in the largest city, Yangon.
The vote will be the first to be held under the country’s military-backed, quasi-civilian government, which has been pushing through expansive political and economic reforms since 2011, bringing the country out of decades of authoritarian rule and international isolation.
It is expected to be the freest, fairest vote seen in the country, also known as Burma, since 1990, when the first multi-party election in decades was held.
That election was won convincingly by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), but the country’s ruling military junta refused to recognize the results.
Will Suu Kyi run for president?
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.
Last month, parliamentarians voted down a motion to remove the clause barring Suu Kyi.
“The NLD will contest the election but the prospect of (Suu Kyi) becoming the president is almost zero,” Aung Zaw, editor of influential Burmese news magazine the Irrawaddy told CNN.
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 as a civilian candidate to put forward for the role.
Suu Kyi said on Saturday she will will run in the constituency of Kaw Mhu, a town outside the biggest city Yangon.
How will the NLD fare?
Scores of political parties are contesting the vote. But the ruling USDP of President Thein Sein will be the NLD’s major rival.
“If the election is free and fair, the NLD is going to win the majority of votes,” said Zaw. “But it is doubtful that they will be able to form the government.”
A quarter of the 664 parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, giving them outsized and “undemocratic” influence on the shape of next government, and the power to veto any changes to the junta-era constitution, says Zaw.
MPs recently voted down a proposal to remove the military’s veto power on constitutional amendments.
Under current arrangements, changes to the constitution require more than 75% of both houses of parliament before the motion is put to a national referendum, giving the military, holding a quarter of parliamentary seats, an effective veto over any changes.
“I think we have to look at post-election,” Zaw said.
“The country (could) face indefinite political stalemate.”
Who else is running?
Scores of political parties are expected to contest the vote. But the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) of President Thein Sein will be the NLD’s major rival.
The party is yet to identify its candidate for the presidency.
But Zaw says the widespread perception that Thein Sein is preparing to seek a second term has triggered a power struggle within the party, between the president’s camp and supporters of influential Speaker of Parliament and party leader Shwe Mann.
While the speaker’s faction appeared to be growing in power, he said, the military – always a critical player in Myanmar politics – seemed closer to the president’s faction.
“I doubt the generals are prepared to be defeated. They have both economic and political power and it is naive to believe they will easily cave in,” he says.
What’s at stake?
Myanmar’s sudden transition towards democracy from decades of international isolation has been welcomed by the international community. But in recent years, fears have grown that this nation of about 51 million has been backsliding on its reforms.
The makeup of the next government will determine how the country goes about tackling longstanding issues, and the pace with which it pursues a reform agenda.
The ethnically diverse, resource-rich country faces a raft of issues, including long-simmering conflicts with ethnic minorities in its border regions – most notably the stateless Rohingya Muslims of the western state of Rakhine, whose suffering has fueled the southeast Asian migrant crisis.
Antipathy towards the Rohingya, and Muslims more generally, has been drummed up by radical nationalist fringes of the country’s powerful Buddhist clergy, which has been pushing for a legal ban on interfaith marriages and other discriminatory measures intended to “protect” Burmese Buddhism.
The government is also attempting to sign a ceasefire with the armed ethnic rebel groups that have taken up arms since independence in 1948. Fighting in the Kokang region has flared this year, spilling over the border with China with deadly consequences.
The aspirations of these diverse ethnic groups, each represented by political parties, are likely to play a big role in the elections and ensuing political negotiations, says Zaw.
CNN’s Kocha Olarn in Bangkok and journalist Aung Thwe in Myanmar contributed to this report.