The party of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi said she had led it to a landslide election victory Sunday, setting the stage for her to take public office for the first time and head a small opposition bloc in the military-dominated parliament.
As results came in Sunday night from the poll watchers of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, party spokesman and campaign manager Nyan Win projected it would win 40 of 45 parliamentary seats at stake.
Other party members, who asked not to be named because they were waiting to verify some returns, said they achieved a clean sweep of all 44 seats they contested.
No official results were expected before Monday. Independent verification of the vote was not possible.
The victory, if confirmed, would mark a major milestone in the Southeast Asian nation, where the military has ruled almost exclusively for a half-century and where a new reform-minded government is seeking legitimacy and a lifting of Western sanctions.
It would also mark the biggest prize of Ms. Suu Kyi's political career, and a spectacular reversal of fortune for the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate who the former junta had kept imprisoned in her lakeside home for the better part of two decades.
A digital signboard outside the National League for Democracy's headquarters in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, announced in the late afternoon that Ms. Suu Kyi had won a seat. Supporters gathered by the thousands began wildly shouting upon learning the news, chanting “We won! We won!” while clapping, dancing, waving red party flags and gesturing with thumbs-up and V-for-victory signs.
As more counts came in from the NLD's poll watchers around the country, the crowd grew to as many as 10,000. The party's security guards tried without success to keep the traffic flowing past the people occupying much of the road and all nearby sidewalks.
Party executive Soe Win said Ms. Suu Kyi had won in 128 of the 129 voting stations in Kawhmu, the constituency south of Yangon that she contested. He said the party had reports of irregularities in the sole holdout.
The NLD captured all four seats in the capital, Naypyitaw, said another of its senior members, Tin Oo.
Results in Naypyitaw had been hard to predict, because many of its residents are civil servants and their families dependent on the government for their livelihoods, and might have favoured the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. The turnout when Ms. Suu Kyi campaigned there was noticeably smaller than elsewhere.
“It is the people's victory! We have taught them a lesson,” said a shopkeeper who goes by the single name Thein who wore a T-shirt with Suu Kyi's picture on the front and her party's fighting peacock on the back.
The digital screen displaying results also flashed a message from Ms. Suu Kyi to her followers noting that they were understandably happy but should avoid gloating. She cautioned them to “Please refrain from rude behaviour or actions that would make the other side unhappy.”
All results must be confirmed by the official electoral commission, which may not make an official declaration for days.
The victory claim came despite allegations by her National League for Democracy party that “rampant irregularities” had taken place on voting day. Party spokesman Nyan Win said that by midday alone the party had filed more than 50 complaints to the Election Commission.
He said most alleged violations concerned waxed ballot papers that made it difficult to mark votes. There were also ballot cards that lacked the Election Commission's seal, which would render them invalid.
Sunday's by-election was called to fill just 45 vacant seats in Myanmar's 664-seat national Parliament and will not change the balance of power in a new government that is nominally civilian but still heavily controlled by retired generals. Ms. Suu Kyi and other opposition candidates would have almost no say even if they win all the seats they are contesting.
But her candidacy has resurrected hope among Myanmar's downtrodden masses, who have grown up for generations under strict military rule. If Ms. Suu Kyi takes office as expected, it would symbolize a giant leap toward national reconciliation.
“She may not be able to do anything at this stage,” said one voter, Go Khehtay, who cast his ballot for Ms. Suu Kyi at Wah Thin Kha, one of the dirt-poor villages in the rural constituency south of Yangon that she is vying to represent. “But one day, I believe she'll be able to bring real change.”
Earlier, crowds of supporters mobbed Ms. Suu Kyi as she visited a polling station in the village after spending the night there. The tiny community of 3,000 farmers has no electricity or running water, and its near-total underdevelopment illustrates the profound challenges facing the country as it slowly emerges from 49 years of army rule.
Despite the reports of widespread irregularities, a confirmed victory by Ms. Suu Kyi could cheer Western powers and nudge them closer to easing economic sanctions they have imposed on the country for years.
Ms. Suu Kyi herself told reporters Friday that the campaigning for Sunday's vote been anything but free or fair, but that she was pressing for forward with her candidacy because it's “what our people want.”
Last year, Myanmar's long-entrenched military junta handed power to a civilian government dominated by retired officers that skeptics decried as a proxy for continued military rule. But the new rulers — who came to power in a 2010 vote that critics say was neither free nor fair — have surprised the world with a wave of reform.
The government of President Thein Sein, himself a retired lieutenant general, has freed political prisoners, signed truces with rebel groups and opened a direct dialogue with Ms. Suu Kyi, who wields enough moral authority to greatly influence the Myanmar policy of the U.S. and other powers.
Ms. Suu Kyi's decision to endorse Mr. Thein Sein's reforms so far and run in Sunday's election represents a political gamble.
Once in parliament, she can seek to influence policy and challenge the government from within. But she also risks legitimizing a regime she has fought against for decades while gaining little true legislative power.
Ms. Suu Kyi is in a “strategic symbiosis” with some of the country's generals and ex-generals, said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar expert and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.
“They need her and she needs them to break the 25 years of political stalemate,” Mr. Zarni said. “She holds the key for the regime's need for its international acceptance and normalization.”
Sunday's poll marks the first foray into electoral politics by Ms. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party since winning a landslide election victory in 1990. The military annulled those results and kept Ms. Suu Kyi in detention for much of the next two decades. The party boycotted the last vote in 2010, but in January the government amended key electoral laws, paving the way for a run in this weekend's ballot.