Polls open in Burma’s first election in 20 years

Polls opened under tight security in Burma’s first election in 20 years on Sunday, a scripted vote that assures army-backed parties an easy win but brings a hint of parliamentary politics to the isolated, oppressive state.

The carefully choreographed end of direct army rule, marred by complex rules that stifled major pro-democracy forces, entered its final stage in a race largely between two powerful military-backed parties running virtually unopposed.

The vote will not bring an end to Western sanctions but could reduce Burma’s isolation in Asia at a time when neighbouring China has dramatically increased investments in natural gas and other resources in the former British colony.

“You look at Burma holding flawed elections today that once again expose the abuses of the military junta,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech in Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s heartbreaking because the people of Burma deserve so much better,” she said.

In the commercial hub of Rangoon, armed riot police stood guard at near-empty polling booths or patrolled streets in convoys of military trucks, part of a clampdown that includes bans on foreign media and on outside election monitors.

The internet was barely functioning, hit by repeated failures widely believed to be orchestrated by the military junta to control information. Power failures in Rangoon also hampered early turnout.

It is the first vote since 1990, when pro-democracy candidates won by a landslide in a result ignored by the junta.

“After the elections, Burma will be a military dictatorship just as much as now,” said David Williams, director of the Centre for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University School of Law.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the military’s political juggernaut, fielding 27 incumbent ministers, top-heavy with recently retired generals.

The USDP dominated the campaign, contesting all 1 158 seats up for grabs. Its only real rival is the National Unity Party (NUP), another vehicle for the military, running in 980 seats.

At least six parties have lodged complaints with the election commission, claiming hundreds of state workers were forced to vote for the pro-military USDP in advance balloting.

“There has been widespread fraud and malpractice committed by the USDP in advance voting across the country,” said Khin Maung Swe, leader of the pro-democracy National Democratic Force, the largest opposition party.

“We democratic parties will have to take appropriate action after the elections,” he added.

Twenty-five percent of seats in all chambers are reserved for serving generals. That means an army-backed party needs to win only 26% of the remaining seats for the junta’s allies to control the country’s national legislature.

Nearly 40 parties are contesting places in a bicameral national Parliament and 14 regional assemblies. Except the USDP and NUP, none have enough candidates to earn any real stake due to a host of 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.

The United States, Britain and some Asian governments have expressed concern about transparency and say the vote will lack credibility while an estimated 2 200 political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, remain in detention.

The last, and only other election since 1960, was 20 years ago and won overwhelmingly by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which has boycotted this election because hundreds of its members are in detention. – Reuters

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