WAH THIN KHA, Myanmar (AP) -- Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was poised to win her first elected office in a landmark election Sunday in Myanmar that drew crowds of voters determined to send the country's most famous ex-political prisoner to parliament.
A victory for Suu Kyi would mark a new era in her 24-year political career, which was spent mostly under house arrest, and for Myanmar as the government seeks legitimacy and a lifting of Western sanctions while emerging from a half-century of oppressive and hermetic military rule.
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. Suu Kyi and other opposition candidates would have almost no say even if they win all the seats they are contesting.
But Suu Kyi's candidacy has resurrected hope among Myanmar's downtrodden masses. If the 66-year-old Nobel peace laureate takes office as expected it would symbolize a giant leap toward national reconciliation.
Crowds of supporters mobbed Suu Kyi as she visited a polling station in Wah Thin Kha, one of dozens of dirt-poor villages in the rural constituency south of Yangon that she is vying to represent.
"She may not be able to do anything at this stage," said one voter, Go Khehtay, who cast his ballot for Suu Kyi. "But one day, I believe she'll be able to bring real change."
Suu Kyi slept overnight in the tiny village of 3,000 farmers, which has no electricity or running water. Its near-total underdevelopment illustrates the profound challenges facing the country as it slowly emerges from 49 years of army rule.
Suu Kyi supporters in other constituencies said they voted for her party with hopes of propelling Suu Kyi to the presidency in during the next ballot in 2015.
"She will not have much maneuvering space in the Parliament this time around but it will be the first step for a bigger leap," said Tin Tin Yi, a retired school teacher in a northern Yangon constituency.
The election could nudge Western powers closer to easing economic sanctions they have imposed on the country for years. But that decision will partly hinge on whether the elections are deemed free and fair, and Suu Kyi and her supporters have so far said the voting has been anything but.
Nyan Win, the spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, cited "rampant irregularities" during election day, saying by midday more than 50 complaints had been filed. 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.
The party's tally indicated that Suu Kyi was headed for victory in her constituency but that irregularities could effect the party's overall results, he said.
Suu Kyi also cast doubt on the ballot's fairness during a news conference Friday, saying that even officials were involved in irregularities that included assaults on candidates and fraudulent voter rolls, but added that she was going 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 Suu Kyi, who wields enough moral authority to greatly influence the Myanmar policy of the U.S. and other powers.
A new reform was expected Monday when Myanmar's currency will be largely unshackled from government controls that kept the kyat at an artificially high rate for decades. The International Monetary fund says the change could lift a major constraint on growth in one of Asia's least developed countries.
Suu Kyi's decision to endorse Thein Sein's reforms so far and run in Sunday's election represents a great 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.
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," 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 Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party since winning a landslide election victory in 1990. The military annulled those results and kept 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.
On Friday, Suu Kyi told reporters that she hoped "to win the military over, to (make them) understand that we have to work together if we want peace and if we want progress."
The military must understand that "the future of this country is their future and that reform in this country means reform for them as well," she said.
Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report.