September 8, 2015 / 12:40 AM / in 2 years

Myanmar's Suu Kyi calls for free and fair elections as campaign starts

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi launched her campaign on Tuesday for the first general election since the end of military rule saying it was a crucial turning point and calling on the global community to monitor the outcome.

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech on voter education at the Hsiseng township in Shan state, Myanmar September 5, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

In a video message posted on her National League for Democracy’s (NLD) Facebook page, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi said the Nov. 8 election should be free and fair, but “almost more important” would be the transition period that follows.

The NLD is expected to win the election, which marks a major shift in Myanmar’s political landscape, giving a platform to democratic activists shut out of public life during nearly half a century of strict military rule that ended in 2011.

The NLD won an election in 1990 with a landslide but the junta did not recognize the result.

“For the first time in decades, our people will have a real chance of bringing about real change. This is a chance that we cannot afford to let slip,” said Suu Kyi.

“A smooth and tranquil transition is almost more important than a free and fair election,” said Suu Kyi, wearing a traditional Burmese green dress with a pink scarf.

The campaign begins less then a month after a presidential contender and opponent of President Thein Sein, parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, was removed as ruling party leader in a dramatic shake-up of the political establishment.

Shwe Mann’s close relationship with Suu Kyi was regarded with suspicion by the military. His ouster has stoked fears that Thein Sein’s government will resist any bid to push it from power even if the opposition wins a convincing victory.

“Please help us by observing what happens before the elections, during the elections, and, crucially, after the elections,” Suu Kyi said, in an appeal to the outside world.

The constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming president, regardless of the outcome. It also gives the army a veto over constitutional change.

The NLD’s main rival will be the ruling, army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The USDP won the last general election which was held under military rule in 2010 and widely condemned as rigged in favor of the party. This time it is expected to lose many seats.

“TIME FOR CHANGE”

Tuesday’s official opening of the campaign was subdued.

Senior NLD members gathered at Suu Kyi’s home in Yangon city to discuss their manifesto and campaign while about 30 activists with flags and banners marched out of the party’s headquarters to the tune of pro-democracy songs. They handed out flyers and put up stickers with the message: “It’s time for change”.

“I will vote for the NLD because I want to see the changes from the top to the lowest level in our country,” said one passer-by, San Myin, 56.

Suu Kyi’s party also stepped up its online campaign, posting pictures of her on a recent trip to Shan State, greeting with supporters waving red NLD flags and surrounding her motorcade in the dusty streets of state capital Taunggyi.

Suu Kyi will meet supporters again on Thursday in Kayah State, where powerful Minister of the President’s Office Soe Thein, the architect of Thein Sein’s economic reforms, is running for a seat in the election.

Her appearance there is a gesture of confidence that the NLD can defeat the president’s closest supporters and their USDP.

The ballot will determine representatives of the bicameral parliament and regional chambers for five-year terms.

The upper and lower houses will both nominate a presidential candidate, who must secure the support of a majority of members. The military - which under the junta-drafted constitution holds a quarter of the seats - will nominate a third.

Parliament will then vote on which of the three candidates will be president and the president will form the government.

“It’s really the president and the president’s administration, rather than the biggest party in parliament, that determines what happens next in the reform process,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst and a former U.N. official in Myanmar.

“That’s the real question.”

The NLD’s power in parliament will depend on whether it has enough members to nominate a presidential candidate on its own. With few credible opinion polls in the impoverished country, that is unclear.

President Thein Sein, who is not running in elections, but still could be nominated by lawmakers for re-election, will meet leaders of ethnic minority rebel groups on Wednesday in the capital, Naypyitaw, to discuss a draft of a proposed nationwide ceasefire.

Additional reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel

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