By Timothy Mclaughlin and Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's ousted ruling party chief narrowly survived a critical test on Thursday, when lawmakers voted to suspend discussion of a controversial bill that could have hastened his downfall amid the biggest political shake-up since the end of military rule.
The vote highlighted the support in parliament for Shwe Mann, who was dramatically removed as chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) by President Thein Sein last week but remains speaker of the lower house.
"It was a close call. It's maybe the second or third time ever that the Myanmar parliament has been so split. It's extremely rare," said Win Oo, a USDP lawmaker who spoken in favor of suspending the bill.
Rival forces are vying for power in Myanmar, which has gone through a period of rapid reform since the ruling junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.
After the sacking of Shwe Mann and the purging of his faction from the party's executive committee, Myanmar's election commission had urged the speaker to bring to a vote a recall bill setting out provisions for removing a legislator from office.
Under the bill, lawmakers would lose their seats if 1 percent of constituents signed a petition to recall them and the election commission found the complaint against them justified.
Shwe Mann, who remains a USDP member, faces such a petition from his constituents for his support in June of bills to amend the constitution and limit the military's role in politics.
The ex-general still faces an uncertain political future after his rivalry with President Thein Sein came to a head last week, when trucks with security personnel sealed off the headquarters of USDP.
In a legislative showdown on Thursday, lawmakers postponed discussion on the bill until the next session of parliament, which will come after an election that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is expected to win.
The outcome was a testament to Shwe Mann's still powerful backing in parliament across party lines.
"The results show there are more supporters of Shwe Mann in parliament and many even among the USDP lawmakers," said Sithu Aung Myint, a political commentator. "It must have disappointed those opposing Shwe Mann."
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi said this week the bill was "ridiculous", arguing the threshold for recalling a lawmaker should be set at around 20 percent of constituents.
Myanmar's commander-in-chief reiterated the need for the army to maintain its powerful role in politics, but said it would accept the results of the landmark Nov. 8 election in comments posted in English on his Facebook page on Thursday.
The constitution reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament for unelected military officers.
"Free and fair elections are also my aspiration," said Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, adding the army would respect the law.
(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Timothy Mclaughlin and Aung Hla Tun in YANGON; Editing by Alex Richardson)