Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi cast her ballot Thursday ahead of election day next week with hundreds of thousands of elderly voters across the country expected to follow suit to reduce the risk of coronavirus.
Wearing a face mask, rubber gloves and her trademark flowers in her hair, Suu Kyi was one of the first in the country to vote in the capital, Naypyidaw.
The 75-year-old's National League for Democracy (NLD) is widely expected to be returned to power in the November 8 polls -- only the second election since the Southeast Asian nation emerged from outright military rule.
Thousands of polling stations across Yangon and other areas badly hit by the pandemic opened in advance to allow voters over the age of 60 to cast their ballots in a bid to protect them from coronavirus.
Some teams of election officials even carried mobile ballot boxes around streets to make voting more accessible for the vulnerable population numbering 800,000 in Yangon alone.
Kyaw Goke, 73, turned out to vote for only the second time in his life, clad in face mask and shield at a downtown booth with chairs laid out to follow strict physical distancing rules.
"Even if I'm afraid of Covid, I believe voting is necessary," the 73-year-old told AFP.
"I hope Mother Suu wins. She's been the one protecting us from Covid-19."
- Turnout trouble? -
Suu Kyi has placed herself front and centre of the nation's efforts to combat the pandemic, giving near-daily addresses to implore citizens to follow lockdown measures.
Experts say her decision to ignore calls for the vote to be postponed is a gamble.
With many campaign events cancelled, her visibility has given the NLD an advantage, but watchdog International Crisis Group said there could be "serious public health ramifications" once the voting is over.
Yangon-based ICG researcher Richard Horsey also warned the pandemic would likely affect turnout.
"If we see a significant dip, then that automatically comes with less credibility," he told AFP.
"It's really important for only the second credible election since the authoritarian days that a democratic election continues to be something that people are interested in."
In 2015, the NLD swept to power in a landslide victory but was forced by the junta-scripted constitution into an uneasy power-sharing agreement with the military.
- Credibility questions -
Many observers have already written off the credibility of the vote before it has even taken place.
The NLD-appointed election commission has been widely condemned for lacking transparency and bungling logistics, including voter lists and alleged discrimination against Muslim candidates.
Virtually all the 600,000 Rohingya Muslims remaining in the country are stripped of citizenship and will not be able to vote.
Further mass cancellations of the election in swathes of ethnic minority areas -- ostensibly for security concerns -- mean a total of nearly two million are disenfranchised in a country with an electorate of some 37 million.
"It won't be free and fair. Machinations are in place to assure an NLD victory," said Yangon-based analyst Khin Zaw Win.
The Rohingya crisis -- where hundreds of thousands of people fled across the border into squalid refugee camps to escape military-backed violence -- might have shattered Suu Kyi's reputation in the West, but she remains a hero for many at home.
Her defence of the nation against genocide charges at the UN's top court last December consolidated support, particularly among the dominant ethnic Bamar.
But the disenfranchisement of many in ethnic minority areas -- already at a disadvantage due to the first-past-the-post electoral system -- could trigger further armed conflict or political violence, warned ICG.
"This time the same results are going to produce division rather than unity," predicted Horsey.