Q+A: Why is army-ruled Myanmar holding an election?

BANGKOK Fri Nov 5, 2010 3:25am EDT

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Myanmar's military rulers will hand over to a new government after a general election on November 7, but few expect it to bring any real change in power, with the military and its proxies likely to dominate parliament and senior positions.

WHY IS MYANMAR HOLDING ELECTIONS?

Western sanctions and decades of corruption and economic mismanagement have crippled the resource-rich country, which was the world's top rice exporter under British colonial rule.

Although trade with China and other Asian countries is picking up, the regime is a pariah in the West because of its poor human rights record. Military totalitarianism has long placed Myanmar's regional allies in an uncomfortable position and its leaders probably recognize that some civilian participation in politics is necessary in order to appear legitimate.

Analysts say Myanmar wants to open up and attract investment. The generals know they must give up power -- nominally at least -- but they want to ensure they and their proxies have control of politics, the judiciary and the economy long into the future.

HOW WILL A GOVERNMENT BE FORMED?

The polls will elect representatives for a two-chamber parliament and 14 regional assemblies. Members of the national parliament will elect a president and two vice-presidents for five-year terms.

A presidential candidate does not have to be a member of parliament but must be a civilian. There is speculation Myanmar's paramount ruler, Senior General Than Shwe and his most trusted aides, Maung Aye and Shwe Man, are eyeing these positions.

Candidates must be over 45 years old, have Burmese citizenship and parentage and have lived in the country for 20 years continuously, which sidelines exiled politicians. Candidates can also not have a foreign spouse of foreign children.

The president will appoint ministers, who need not be elected house representatives. The president will also choose the chief justice and attorney general. Parliament can only challenge the appointments if the individuals do not meet qualifications outlined in the constitution.

WHAT ROLE WILL THE MILITARY HAVE?

A very significant one. A quarter of the seats in all legislative chambers have been reserved for serving military officers appointed by the armed forces chief.

Recently retired soldiers and junta proxies representing pro-military parties will probably win most of the other seats.

The army-dominated parliament is expected to nominate and elect a member or protégé of the current junta to be the all-powerful president.

The president must name three serving generals as ministers overseeing security. The military chief can assume full sovereign power in a state of emergency if he believes the "disintegration of the union" is a danger. The military has never said it would withdraw from politics. The first page of the constitution states the military is "able to participate in the national political leadership role."

HOW INCLUSIVE WILL THE POLLS BE?

Some of the biggest names in Burmese politics, such as Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, are in detention and some parties not aligned with the military were not allowed to participate in the vote. Those allowed to take part have little room for maneuver.

Pro-democracy parties complain they have been intimidated and given little to prepare, recruit candidates or raise funds. Canvassing and campaign activities have been restricted and scrutinized, and candidates not aligned with military-backed parties say voters are often too scared to talk to them.

Several ethnic minority political groups had requests to form parties rejected. Some former rebel leaders applied to run as independents but that was denied.

The junta has scrapped voting in hundreds of villages in ethnic minority areas where it says free and fair polls will not be possible. These could be places where rebels might try to prevent balloting, although minority parties believe they are constituencies in which the junta fears its proxies will lose.

WILL THE POLLS BE FREE AND FAIR, AS PROMISED?

Myanmar's transition to army-dominated democracy has been carefully crafted to consolidate military power and sideline opponents. It probably won't be necessary to rig the election result itself, unless the turnout is very low.

WILL THE WEST LIFT SANCTIONS?

Because of the restrictive election laws and the junta's refusal to free political prisoners, this is unlikely. But even an election that brings reforms without genuine democracy would sharpen the debate over whether sanctions should be removed. There are plenty of investors keen to take advantage of Myanmar's untapped potential.

(Editing by Alan Raybould)

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