YANGON (Reuters) - The party of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won Myanmar's weekend by-elections by a landslide, claiming all but one of the vacant seats and clearing the way for the former political prisoner to enter parliament in a historic vote that could lead the West to end sanctions.
The charismatic Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the struggle against military rule in the former Burma for two decades, seems set to be one of 44 new National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers, the party said on Monday.
The NLD did not contest one of the 45 by-elections.
"As far as we have heard from our sources, NLD candidates won in all 44 seats. I think the Election Commission will come up with official announcements soon," NLD campaign manager Nyan Win told Reuters.
If confirmed, the clean sweep would mean the NLD even won four seats in the capital, Naypyitaw, a new city built by the former junta where most of the residents are government employees and military personnel.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which will remain the biggest in parliament even if the NLD by-election victories are confirmed, could not be reached for comment.
The United States and European Union had hinted they could lift some sanctions - imposed over the past two decades in response to human rights abuses - if the election was free and fair. Lifting sanctions could unleash a wave of investment in the resource-rich country bordering India and China.
Suu Kyi had complained last week of "irregularities", though none seemed significant enough to question the vote.
She issued a statement after the poll on Sunday asking supporters to respect the other parties.
"It is natural that the NLD members and their supporters are joyous at this point," Suu Kyi said. "However, it is necessary to avoid manners and actions that will make the other parties and members upset. It is very important that NLD members take special care that the success of the people is a dignified one."
Voters had filed into makeshift polling stations from dawn on Sunday, some gushing with excitement after casting ballots for the frail-looking Suu Kyi, or "Aunty Suu" as she is affectionately known.
Among supporters who voted in her rustic constituency of bamboo-thatched homes in Kawhmu, there was little doubt she would win.
"Almost everyone we asked voted for Aunty Suu," said Ko Myint Aung, a 27-year-old shop owner.
To be regarded as credible, the vote needed the blessing of Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest in November 2010, six days after a widely criticised general election that paved the way for the end of 49 years of direct army rule and the opening of a parliament stacked with retired or serving military. President Thein Sein, a general in the former junta, has surprised the world with the most dramatic political reforms since the military took power in a 1962 coup.
In just one year, the government has freed hundreds of political prisoners, held peace talks with ethnic rebels, relaxed strict media censorship, allowed trade unions and showed signs of pulling back from the powerful economic and political orbit of its giant neighbour China.
It was rewarded last November when Hillary Clinton made the first visit to the country by a U.S. secretary of state since 1955. Business executives, mostly from Asia but also from Europe and the United States, have swarmed into Yangon in recent weeks to hunt for investment opportunities in the country of 60 million people, one of the last frontier markets in Asia.
A small number of officials from Western countries and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were invited to attend the polls but given only a few days to prepare. They called themselves "visitors" rather than observers.
"Whatever irregularities we saw ... did not seem to be out of bad will or intentions. It was more lack of experience or knowledge," said EU delegate Malgorzata Wasilewska, adding that irregularities could still occur in the counting process.
The 2010 election was condemned as rigged to favour the USDP, formed by the junta before it ceded power a year ago.
The NLD boycotted that vote. But just as Myanmar is changing, so too is Suu Kyi. Many see her now, at 66, as more politically astute, more realistic and ready to compromise. She has described Thein Sein as "honest" and "sincere" and accepted his appeal for the NLD to take part.
Her top priorities, she says, are introducing the rule of law, ending long-simmering ethnic insurgencies and amending the 2008 constitution that ensures the military retains a political stake and its strong influence over the country.
Many expect Suu Kyi to exert considerable influence and some wonder if conservatives would dare oppose her in parliament given her popularity, especially ahead of a general election in 2015. Many MPs want to be seen aligned with her, basking in her popular support.
Suu Kyi suffered sickness during the campaign and accused rivals of vandalising NLD posters, padding electoral registers and "many, many cases of intimidation". However, the infractions were quite minor compared with elections elsewhere in Southeast Asia, where vote-buying and even assassinations are not unknown.
On Sunday the NLD alleged coercion by the USDP during voting and said some ballot papers were damaged.
Some critics say Suu Kyi has got too close to a government stacked with the same former generals who persecuted dissidents, and fear she is being exploited to persuade the West to end sanctions and make the legislature appear effective.
On the other hand, some have almost impossibly high hopes of what she can achieve in parliament.
"Too many expectations are dangerous," says Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner. "She is not a magician."
Some U.S. restrictions such as visa bans and asset freezes could be lifted quickly if the election goes smoothly, diplomats say, while the EU may end its ban on investment in timber and the mining of gemstones and metals.
But some critics say sanctions should remain in place to encourage more reforms and ensure all political prisoners are freed and bloody conflicts with ethnic militias cease.
"Giving the NLD the ability to win an extremely limited number of seats in parliament is not enough," said Joe Crowley, who in January became the first U.S. congressman to visit Myanmar in 12 years. "Now is not the time for the international community to rush toward lifting pressure on Burma."
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Martin Petty and Alan Raybould; Editing by Neil Fullick)
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