Myanmar's historic vote: What you need to know

A preview of Myanmar's historic elections
A preview of Myanmar's historic elections

Myanmar's general election on Sunday, hailed as the first free vote in twenty-five years, could mark a new milestone in the country's arrival on the international stage.

Under the leadership of international icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) is widely expected to win—an event likely to dramatically alter the country's political landscape following six decades of economic and political isolation under a military dictatorship that ended in 2011.

Suu Kyi's promise to bring democracy to the former British colony comes amid an unprecedented influx of foreign funds thanks to the nation's new open-for-business image. In 2011, reforms were introduced following the dissolution of the ruling military junta and the establishment of a civilian parliament, led by former general President Thein Sein of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

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Despite landmark changes, such as the removal of Western sanctions, dissatisfaction with the USDP remains high amid restricted civil liberties. Moreover, the military still retains a strong presence in government, with the constitution requiring generals to hold a certain quota of ministerial posts and parliamentary chamber seats. The NLD hopes to end military rule and accelerate political reforms that have taken a backseat to the economic policies prioritized by the ruling USDP.

As foreign direct investment grows and ethnic conflict intensifies in Myanmar, here's what you need to know ahead of the closely-watched vote.

Is it really a free election?

"Despite the excitement building and the vibrant campaigning going on across the country (itself a sign of the freedoms unleashed in Myanmar), the past few weeks have caused some to worry that this election will be fraudulent, and that a large proportion of voters will be denied the chance to call ballots," explained Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent note.

Inaccurate voter lists and the lack of polling booths in conflict-torn areas means around 4 million domestic and overseas citizens are unable to vote, Reuters reported. Last year, the country's population stood at over 51 million.

Radical Buddhist monks have been trying to intimidate Muslims into not voting, Kurlantzick said, amid reports of systematic repression against the Rohingya Muslim community. After the 1982 Citizenship Law effectively denied Rohingyas citizenship, recent episodes of violence forced as many as 100,000 to flee the country in the past two years, according to Human Rights Watch.

Moreover, there's the question of whether the military would even accept an NLD victory. In the 1990 general election, which was aimed at forming a committee to draft a new constitution rather than a new government, the NLD obtained the majority of votes but army leaders annulled the victory. Some speculate that there could be a repeat this year.

Even if the NLD wins, Suu Kyi won't be President

Despite being the face of the party and Myanmar's symbol of progress, 70-year old Suu Kyi is legally unable to be President.

The current constitution bans citizens with foreign family members from the position; Suu Kyi's late husband was British and her two sons hold British passports. The rule is unlikely to change anytime soon due to the army's strong governmental presence, analysts say.

"The military are allocated 25 percent of the seats in the parliament as well as having a veto over legislation...Even if the NLD wins a majority of seats in parliament, it will still be essential for them to co-operate with the military in order to get support for any reforms that need to be passed through parliament," Rajiv Biswas, chief economist, Asia-Pacific at IHS, told CNBC.

National League for Democracy supporters
Getty Images

What does the NLD mean for investors?

The party's economic platform includes financial sector liberalization, making the central bank independent in setting monetary policy, accelerating infrastructure development, as well as fiscal reforms to control the budget deficit and privatize some state-owned enterprises.

However, the lack of experience in government could hamper the NLD's effectiveness in delivering economic reforms, warned Biswas.

"One of the uncertainties that would be created by an NLD victory would be about the political outlook and whether an NLD majority in parliament will trigger a backlash from the military hardliners who have had political control for many years. This uncertainty could impact of private sector FDI inflows, as investors stay on the sidelines to assess the durability of an NLD-led government."

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Equally important is how the transfer of power takes place on March 31st, 2016; the official date for the new President to come into power, flagged Bhavya Sehgal, APAC head of research at Frontier Strategy Group (FSG).

"FSG recommends multinationals should watch for Q2/Q3 2016 to witness the details of the reform agenda which the ruling party will put in place. We do expect reforms across healthcare, agriculture, industrial sector to be agreed upon, but the execution isn't going to be easy."

A NLD landslide isn't guaranteed

In 1990, the party won 392 of the 492 available seats but those numbers could be reduced this time amid expectations for a weaker performance in minority controlled areas that are dominated by ethnic-based parties, pointed out Hans Vriens, managing partner at corporate advisory firm Vriens & Partners.

Of the 91 parties registered in the elections, 59 represent ethnic or religious minorities, such as the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party and Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

Furthermore, a lack of reliable pre-election polling data means there's still considerable uncertainty about the overall share of the parliamentary seats that the NLD will win, Biswas added.