YANGON Myanmar votes for the first time in 20 years on Sunday in a scripted election where military-backed parties are assured victory, but the poll is also stirring faint hopes of change in one of the world's most isolated states.
The carefully choreographed end of direct army rule, marred by complex rules that stifled major pro-democracy forces, enters its final stage in a largely two-horse race between two powerful army-backed parties running virtually unopposed.
The ballot, the first since a 1990 poll ignored by the military after its proxies were trounced, has been dubbed an "election of generals" and panned as the reclusive junta's formal transfer of power to itself.
"They will maintain the status quo and need only a small majority to do it," said Win Min, an exiled Burmese academic and expert on Myanmar's military. "Be sure that the generals want to win, and they want to win big.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the military's political juggernaut, fielding 27 incumbent ministers, top-heavy with recently retired generals and boasting 18 million members among the estimated 28 million eligible voters.
The USDP has dominated the campaign and will contest all 1,158 seats up for grabs. Its only real challenge comes from the National Unity Party (NUP), another vehicle for the military, running for 980 seats.
Twenty-five percent of seats in all chambers are reserved for serving generals. That means an army-backed party needs to win only 26 percent of the remaining seats for the junta's allies to have a controlling stake in the country's national legislature.
There are 35 other parties contesting places in a bicameral national parliament and 14 regional assemblies. None has fielded enough candidates to win or earn any real stake in politics.
Three opposition parties lodged complaints with the election commission on Friday, claiming hundreds of state workers were forced to vote for the pro-military USDP in advance balloting.
"We've heard of a lot of cheating and malpractice," said Thu Wai, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party (Myanmar).
"Some ordinary voters didn't get the chance to fill out the ballots themselves because someone had already done it on their behalf," he said.
The National Democratic Force, Rakhine Nationalities Development Party and the NUP also cried foul.
Danny Richards of the Economist Intelligence Unit said the election may appease Myanmar's key trade and political partners but would not be enough for the West to lift sanctions.
"It will cement the military's power but leave some space for the opposition, to give this system some credibility and secure the support of China and regional allies," he said.
"In essence, this dictatorship will appear more credible and democratic, but most people won't buy that."
Still, some analysts say it 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 elections, flawed as they are, could provide a catalyst," wrote Derek Tonkin, a Myanmar expert and former British ambassador to Thailand, in a newsletter. "Somehow the impasse has to be broken, and the West has run out of ideas."
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 government has barred foreign journalists and observers and the election commission rejected outside help because it had "abundant experience in running elections." The Internet in Myanmar has been subjected to repeated failures in attacks believed orchestrated by the junta to control information.
The last, and only other election since 1960, was 20 years ago and won in a landslide by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). The regime ignored the result.
The NLD has boycotted this election because hundreds of its members are in detention. It appears to be leading a no-vote campaign to discredit the poll by informing voters of their constitutional right to abstain.
The military this week responded by threatening to stay in charge if voters shunned the polls.
(Writing and additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)