Myanmar’s polls offer voters a chance to grasp democracy.

There are giggles all round as a middle aged women hops off her motorbike, quietly singing a song about iconic Myanmar opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

She strides into the line at a voting booth at 18 Ward in Taungoo, Bago Division, where she promptly stops her ballad, joking that she could get a hefty fine for singing about politics so close to the polling station.

Polls have officially opened in Myanmar’s momentous national elections, the first openly competed elections in more than 25 years.

Election staff, security and observers have been up since the early hours to execute what the entire world hopes to be the most open since the disregarded 1990 polls.

These historic elections have seen everyday people re-engage with national politics after decades of fear and oppression.

For much of the military period, highly stage-managed elections were a means of lending legitimacy to a regime sanctioned and condemned by much of the international community.

High turnout was essential, so local headmen and bureaucrats often strong-armed voters to the polls – or simply voted on their behalf. The result was what one political analyst recently termed ‘low interest, high turnout’ elections, which were boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and other opposition parties.

Many who lived through the worst years of authoritarian rule since 1962 came to see politicians and politics as selfish, extractive and ‘dirty’. Others held their political beliefs and hopes secretly, chastened by the imprisonment of friends who skirted too close to the strict limits of military rule.

Those sentiments die hard. Yet with the recent reforms and liberalisation – led since 2011 by military-cum-civilian leader President Thein Sein – the 2015 campaign has been the freest and most contentious in recent memory.

Formal politics has proliferated, with 93 parties and more than 6,000 candidates registered with Myanmar’s Union Election Commission. Since the commencement of campaigning in September, fresh faith is emerging in candidates and parties as everyday people begin to engage in politics for the first time in decades.

Hope for continued reform is a recurring feature of the campaign. Largely the language of underground activists, the needs and will of ‘the people’ and ‘the public’ have been put front and centre in the stump speeches and village visits of candidates of all stripes.

Lessons from by-elections in 2012 have also been learnt. They saw the NLD win all but one of the 44 seats they contested. Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi subsequently took a seat in Parliament, a move that became a global symbol of Myanmar’s recent transformation.

Despite Suu Kyi’s prominence, however, some voters give credit for recent reforms to incumbent President Thein Sein. Others believe Thein Sein is the only leader capable of convincing Myanmar’s powerful military to support continued reform. The military retains 25 per cent of seats in national and regional parliaments, and currently holds an effective veto over constitutional reform.

For millions of Myanmar’s ethnic minority voters, the election brings difficult choices between nation-wide parties with the clout to lead reforms and those built on more local ethnic concerns like language autonomy. After seeing decades of conflict with Myanmar’s military, some ethnic Karen voters in eastern Myanmar say they’ll split their vote.

“Yes we are Karen, but we need to change the whole country. So we can’t just support our own kind”, a young mother of two in a Christian Karen village explains. She says she’ll vote for the NLD for the parliament in Naypyitaw, and ethnic parties for the regional assembly.

After decades of compulsion the meaning of voting is also beginning to change from a grudging obligation to an act with national and even spiritual meaning. “Voting is a compassionate and meritorious action”, a devout Buddhist man tells me. “We get good merit for giving our vote”, another young woman says proudly.

Ironically, the emergence of new ideas about popular sovereignty and democracy are also intimately tied to the emergence of a high-risk Islamophobia that’s received top-level endorsement during the campaign.

In recent weeks President Thein Sein has hit the campaign trail with the current Commander in Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces. Together, they have urged voters – including members of the military – to vote for the USDP as they “truly support nation and religion”.

It’s a not-so-veiled attack on the opposition NLD who it’s claimed is more concerned with human rights than ‘national religion’, a serious allegation for many in this deeply devout nation. It echoes the messages of a virulent group of nationalist monks, Ma Ba Tha, formed following the 2012 Rakhine State inter-religious violence – sparked by a rape – that killed more than 200 people and displaced over 140,000.

After today’s poll, the focus will turn to political horse-trading. Ethnic and special interest parties look set to pick up dozens if not hundreds of seats in Myanmar’s seven ethnic states. A coalition government is likely, meaning that messy negotiations for ministries and senior executive positions could drag on for months.

NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains constitutionally barred from the Presidency as her children hold British citizenship. Buoyed by what will no doubt be a much larger NLD presence in Parliament though, she’s set to wield significant influence over the appointment of the country’s next leader.

Australia – like many other Western nations – will likely benefit from our wise support of Myanmar’s recent reforms. Revised foreign investment, mining and education laws are all likely to be passed soon after the elections, offering big opportunities for investors in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest but fastest growing nations.

Myanmar’s largest trade partner China has the most to lose, already having seen a series of destructive dams suspended in recent years. The incoming administration will face the tough choice of ultimately cancelling or approving these big-ticket projects.

Regardless of the post-election outcomes though, perhaps the important impact of these elections is in re-engaging citizens in the affairs of the nation.

“People are not afraid anymore”, says David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch. There is immense popular interest and hope in these elections among everyday people.

Fulfilling the expectations of millions grasping at a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous Myanmar will be the tricky task for whoever takes the reigns of the next government.

Gerard McCarthy is a doctoral candidate in the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and Endeavour Postgraduate Scholar in the Department of International Relations at University of Yangon.

This article forms part of New Mandala’s ‘Myanmar and the vote‘ series.