Supporters of Burma's opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi erupted in euphoric cheers on Sunday after her party said she won a parliamentary seat in a landmark election, setting the stage for her to take public office for the first time.
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.
The victory claim was displayed on a digital signboard outside the opposition National League for Democracy's headquarters in Burma's main city, Rangoon, where supporters gathered by the thousands as the polls closed in the late afternoon.
Suu Kyi's results were among the first announced. Shortly after polls closed, her party had claimed that Suu Kyi was ahead with 65% of the vote in 82 of her constituency's 129 polling stations.
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.
The by-election was called to fill just 45 vacant seats in Burma'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.
But her candidacy has resurrected hope among Burma's downtrodden masses, who have grown up for generations under strict military rule. If Suu Kyi takes office as expected, it would symbolise 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 Suu Kyi at Wah Thin Kha, one of the dirt-poor villages in the rural constituency south of Rangoon that she is vying to represent. "But one day, I believe she'll be able to bring real change."
Earlier, crowds of supporters mobbed 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.
Suu Kyi herself told reporters on Friday that the campaigning for the vote been anything but free or fair, but that she was pressing for forward with her candidacy because it's "what our people want".