Yangon: Myanmar voted in 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.
The carefully choreographed end of half a century of direct army rule is largely a race between two military-backed parties running virtually unopposed, due to complex election rules that stifled any prospect of pro-democracy parties causing an upset.
The vote will not bring an end to Western sanctions but could reduce Myanmar’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 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,” US President Barack Obama told students in Mumbai.
“For too long the people of Burma have been denied the right to determine their own destiny.”
Armed riot police stood guard at polling booths or patrolled streets in military trucks in the commercial hub, Yangon, part of a 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,13 November.
Her release could energise pro-democracy forces and put pressure on the West to roll back sanctions.
Apathy, low turnout
From rural Myanmar to urban centres, apathy was pervasive.
In Yangon, many people said they planned to spend time at pagodas with families instead of voting. In Haka, capital of Chin state bordering India and Bangladesh, more people attended church than cast ballots, witnesses said.
But the National Democratic Force (NDF), the largest pro-democracy party, predicted overall turnout of 60%, a figure that looked high given sparsely attended ballot stations.
“There’s no sign of any organised boycott,” Than Nyein, chairman of the NDF, which broke from Suu Kyi’s party in May, told the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok by telephone.
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), is also backed by the army and 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, as it is thought to be closer to a different faction in the army.
Charges of fraud
Although Myanmar assured its neighbours the election would be “free and fair”, it looked anything but. 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.
The pro-democracy NDF accused the USDP of “widespread fraud.”
Witnesses said voters who asked officials for assistance at ballot booths were simply told to tick the box of the USDP.
“Turnout is terribly low at some polling stations,” said Hla Myint, a spokesman for the Democratic Party (Myanmar), which ran in the 1990 poll and has long opposed military rule.
25% of seats in all chambers are reserved for serving generals. That means an army-backed party needs to win only another 26% of the seats through the ballot box for the junta’s allies to control the national legislature.
Thirty-seven parties are contesting places in a bicameral national parliament and 14 regional assemblies. Except the USDP and NUP, none has enough candidates to win 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 with thousands of political activists in prison.