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Myanmar ruling party set for key vote

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar -- Top figures in Myanmar's ruling party stepped down Tuesday for a leadership revamp aimed at improving its electoral prospects against Aung San Suu Kyi's resurgent opposition.

Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) executives including President Thein Sein resigned their party positions before a leadership vote to be held later in the day, USDP secretary Thein Zaw told the group's first conference.

Thein Sein relinquished an active party role to become president last year at the end of nearly half a century of outright military rule, ushering in a period of dramatic political reforms by his quasi-civilian government.

Lower house speaker Shwe Mann, another former general and rival reformer, is seen as a key candidate for the USDP chairmanship, with members looking towards a 2015 election seen as a major test of the regime's democratic credentials.

“Today is a very important day,” Shwe Mann told the USDP party conference, adding that the “whole country is keenly watching” proceedings.

He urged delegates to “participate in the reform process.”

“When we reorganize the party we will transform ourselves into the people's party,” he added.

Analysts say Thein Sein has been locked in a power struggle with Shwe Mann, who was more senior under the previous military regime and is widely considered to harbor ambitions of taking the presidency after 2015.

The USDP, which was set up by the former junta, is still smarting from a blistering loss in April by-elections at the hands of Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, which won 43 of the 44 seats it contested.

The USDP swept a general election two years ago that was marred by allegations of fraud and the absence of Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest just days later.

But observers say the blossoming of freedoms in Myanmar has put the party at a distinct disadvantage if it goes up against Suu Kyi's huge popularity in a free and fair election.

Suu Kyi said recently she had “the courage to be president” if elected.

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