Burma held a landmark election Sunday that was expected to send democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament for her first public office since launching her decades-long struggle against the military-dominated government.

Sunday's byelection, to fill a few dozen vacant seats in the country, also known as Myanmar, followed months of surprising reforms by a nominally civilian government that does not relish ceding ground to Suu Kyi. But the country's leaders are making a push to appear more democratic, in order to emerge from decades of international isolation that have crippled Burma's economy.

Suu Kyi's party and its opposition allies will have almost no sway even if they win all the seats they are contesting, because the 664-seat parliament will remain dominated by the military and the military-backed ruling party.

But when Suu Kyi takes office, it will symbolize a giant leap toward national reconciliation after nearly a quarter-century in which she spent most of her time under house arrest. It could also nudge Western powers closer to easing economic sanctions they have imposed on the country for years.

The 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate is vying to represent the constituency of Wah Thin Kha, one of dozens of dirt-poor villages south of the main city Rangoon. She is running against the ruling party's Soe Win, a former army doctor.

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A woman votes at a ballot station during by-elections in Yangon on Sunday. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Suu Kyi slept overnight in the tiny hamlet, where party supporters hooked up a homemade grid of generator-powered electric lights perched outside the home she stayed in. The village of 3,000 farmers has no electricity or running water, nor any paved roads, and its near-total underdevelopment illustrates the profound challenges facing the country as it slowly emerges from 49 years of army rule.

Push for reform

Last year, Burma'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, prompted in part by a desire to get Western sanctions lifted and to come out from under the influence of its powerful neighbour, China.

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 Burma policy of the U.S. and other powers.

Her decision to endorse Thein Sein's reforms so far and run in the election was a great 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 Burma 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."

'Winning over' military rulers

On Friday, Suu Kyi told reporters 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 added.

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.

During a news conference Friday, Suu Kyi cast serious doubt over the ballot's fairness, saying it could not be called free or fair because of myriad irregularities and intimidation during the campaign. Her party says electoral officials have illegally canvassed for the ruling party, opposition posters have been vandalized, and while some voter lists lack eligible voters others include the names of the dead.

Still, Suu Kyi said, she had no regrets in joining the race and said she was determined to go ahead "because we think this is what our people want."