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Myanmar army-backed parties set to sweep rare poll

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s military will keep its grip on power after the country’s first election in 20 years through parties that emerged on Monday as the likely winners of a vote marred by fraud, and condemned by Washington and London.

An election official holds up a ballot paper at a vote counting centre in Yangon November 7, 2010. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Complex rules for Sunday’s election thwarted any chance of a pro-democracy upset as Myanmar ends half a century of direct army rule. State TV said voters “freely and happily” cast ballots, but witness accounts suggested low turn-out and irregularities.

Illustrating strains multi-ethnic Myanmar has faced for decades, a clash erupted between ethnic minority Karen rebels and government soldiers in the border town of Myawaddy, Reuters witnesses on the Thai side of the border said.

Several rockets or mortar bombs fell on the Thai side. At least 10 people were wounded, witnesses said.

Many ethnic groups fear the election will strengthen Myanmar’s constitution and destroy any chance of achieving a degree of autonomy, stoking concern the fighting could spread.

Official election results trickled out over state media, showing the military and its proxy parties ahead, but a clear picture of who won control of parliament could take a day or longer in the reclusive country where timely information is rare.

“There’s no doubt the new government will be the military in civilian clothing but the parliament also offers some hope of a gradual transition to a system where there is more space for political debate,” said Christopher Roberts, an Asian studies and international relations expert at the University of Canberra.

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

No one expects an imminent end to Western sanctions. But the poll 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.

For the first five months of this year, China has invested about $8 billion in Myanmar, which it sees as strategic ally and important trading partner, especially for its energy-hungry western provinces.

FOCUS ON SUU KYI

With the results largely preordained, focus turned to whether Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention, will be freed when her house arrest expires on Saturday.

The United States, Britain, the European Union and Japan repeated calls to free the 65-year-old pro-democracy leader whose National League for Democracy beat the army-backed party by a landslide in in 1990, a result ignored by the military junta.

She urged supporters to boycott Sunday’s election while about 2,100 political activists or opposition politicians are behind bars. Her youngest son, Kim Aris, flew from Britain to Bangkok, stirring speculation of her imminent release, but the Myanmar embassy on Monday denied his request for an entry visa.

The Japanese government said it was “deeply disappointed” Suu Kyi had not been freed ahead of the vote. Myanmar should “ensure that these elections mark the start of a more inclusive phase” by releasing political detainees, Japan’s foreign ministry said.

Freeing Suu Kyi could energise pro-democracy forces. The military will be wary of her supporters massing.

“Only five days more,” read a banner hanging outside the headquarters of her now-defunct party.

State television said the election was conducted “with a full sense of inclusiveness” and the country’s rulers were “handing over sovereign power to the people, which is the ultimate owner”.

State media in neighbouring China also praised the vote.

“We know that handing over power to civilians in Myanmar cannot happen in one step, but we support this direction,” said China’s Global Times newspaper, a tabloid published by the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.

MILITARY DOMINANCE

In the new parliament, 25 percent of seats in all chambers are reserved for serving generals. Army-backed parties need to win just 26 percent of seats for the military and its proxies to secure a majority.

The junta’s political juggernaut, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), closely aligned with junta supremo Than Shwe, fielded 27 ministers in Sunday’s poll and contested almost all of the 1,163 seats that state TV said were up for grabs.

Its only real rival, the National Unity Party (NUP), also backed by the army, was running in 980 seats.

While the NUP and USDP are both conservative and authoritarian, they may pursue opposing policies in parliament, ultimately fostering some democratic debate, diplomats said.

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

At least six parties filed complaints to the election commission, claiming state workers were forced to vote for the USDP. 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 because of restrictions such as high fees for each candidate.

Additional reporting by Vorasit Satienlerk in Mae Sot, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Robert Birsel in Bangkok and Chisa Fujioka in Tokyo. Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alan Raybould and Miral Fahmy

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