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Low turnout mars Myanmar's first vote in 20 years

Myanmar held its first election in 20 years on Sunday under tight security, a scripted vote that assures army-backed parties an easy win but brings a hint of parliamentary politics to one of Asia's most oppressed states.

world Updated: Nov 07, 2010 19:48 IST

Myanmar held its first election in 20 years on Sunday under tight security, a scripted vote that assures army-backed parties an easy win but brings a hint of parliamentary politics to one of Asia's most oppressed states.

Hours after polls had closed, there was no mention of the election in state media broadcasts, no announcement of winners and no official turnout. Results may not be known for a day.

But two military-backed parties running virtually unopposed were certain to prevail in Myanmar's carefully choreographed end to half a century of direct army rule. Complex election rules stifled any prospect of a pro-democracy upset.

Low turnout and fraud charges marred voting. Many who abstained expressed doubt they could alter the authoritarian status quo in a vote that both U.S. President Barack Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague described in separate statements as flawed and neither free nor fair.

Some Yangon residents packed pagodas instead of voting. In Haka, capital of Chin state bordering India and Bangladesh, more people attended church than cast ballots, witnesses said.

"We're falling asleep," said an official at one polling station official in the commercial hub Yangon before polls shut.

The vote will not bring an end to Western sanctions but may reduce Myanmar's isolation at a time when neighbouring China has dramatically increased investment in natural gas and other resources in the former British colony also known as Burma.

"There are elections that are being held right now in Burma that will be anything but free and fair, based on every report that we are seeing," U.S. President Barack Obama told students in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai.

Armed riot police stood guard at polling booths or patrolled streets in military trucks in Yangon, part of a security clampdown that includes bans on foreign media and outside election monitors and a tightening in state censorship.

The Internet was barely functioning, hit by repeated failures widely believed to have been orchestrated by the junta to control information. Power failures also hampered early turnout.

It is the first election since 1990, when Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy beat the army-backed party in a landslide. The junta simply ignored that result.

Suu Kyi, detained for 15 of the past 21 years, urged a boycott of this poll, saying she "would not dream" of taking part. She could take the spotlight this week, however, ahead of the expiry of her house arrest on Saturday, Nov. 13.

Her release could energise pro-democracy forces and put pressure on the West to roll back sanctions.

MILITARY DOMINANCE

The junta's political juggernaut, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is fielding 27 incumbent ministers. Closely aligned with supreme leader Senior General Than Shwe, it is top-heavy with recently retired generals.

It is contesting all the estimated 1,158 seats up for grabs. Its only real rival, the National Unity Party (NUP), also backed by the army, is running in 980 seats.

But while the NUP and USDP are both conservative and authoritarian, they may pursue opposing social and economic policies in parliament, ultimately fostering greater democratic debate in a country where an estimated 2,100 political activists and opposition politicians are behind bars, diplomats said.

An unexpectedly large vote for the NUP could also be seen as a subtle jab against Than Shwe since it is thought to be closer to a different faction in the army.

"They are not of the same machinery," a Western diplomat said of the two dominant parties, citing tensions between the two on the campaign trail. "The USDP is very much the regime's party while the NUP has a longer legacy," he added, referring to its founding under the rule of late dictator Ne Win.

Ne Win was placed under house arrest in 2002 by Than Shwe, who accused him of treason. Ne Win died that year.

FRAUD CHARGES

Despite such differences, the military will emerge the unquestioned winner. Twenty-five percent of seats in all chambers are reserved for serving generals. That means army-backed parties needs to win just 26 percent of seats for the military and its proxies to secure a majority in the legislature.

But the army appears to be taking no chances. At least six parties lodged complaints with the election commission, claiming state workers were forced to vote for the USDP in advance balloting.

In Yangon, many voters turned up to vote only to find their names not on electoral rolls, said Zaw Aye Maung, a candidate for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the second-largest of 22 ethnic-based parties.

Hundreds of Rohingyas, a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, were given identification cards in Yangon and the right to vote in exchange for backing the USDP, he added.

Some voters who asked officials for assistance at ballot booths were told to tick the box of the USDP, witnesses said. The National Democratic Force (NDF), the largest pro-democracy party, accused the USDP of "widespread fraud".

Thirty-seven parties are contesting places in a bicameral national parliament and 14 regional assemblies. Except for the USDP and NUP, none has enough candidates to win any real stake due to restrictions such as high fees for each candidate.

Still, some analysts say the election will create a framework for a democratic system that might yield changes in years ahead in a country bestowed with rich natural resources and located strategically between rising powers China and India.