Myanmar army-backed parties set to sweep rare poll

YANGON (Reuters) - Two military-backed parties looked set to prevail on Monday in Myanmar’s first election in 20 years, a day after a choreographed vote marred by fraud charges and apathy, and condemned as flawed by Washington and London.

Complex election rules 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 turnout and voting irregularities.

Official 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 release of information is rare.

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

“Many aspects of these elections are not compatible with internationally accepted standards,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement. “The EU calls on the authorities to ensure that these elections mark the start of a more inclusive phase.”

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.”

The vote will not bring an end to Western sanctions but may reduce Myanmar’s isolation at a time when neighboring China has dramatically increased investment in natural gas and other resources in the former British colony also known as Burma.

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Some analysts say that despite its flaws, the election will create a framework for a democratic system that might yield changes in years ahead.

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, November 13.

Her release could energize pro-democracy forces and put pressure on the West to roll back sanctions.

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

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The junta’s political juggernaut, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is closely aligned with junta supremo Than Shwe, is top-heavy with recently retired generals and is fielding 27 ministers.

It is contesting almost all of the 1,163 seats that state TV said were up for grabs in parliament and regional assemblies.

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

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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 since it is thought to be closer to a different faction in the army.

Still, the military will emerge the unquestioned winner. Twenty-five 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 appears to be taking no chances. At least six parties filed complaints to the election commission, claiming state workers were forced to vote for the USDP.

In Yangon, many voters turned up to vote on Sunday 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.

Hundreds of Rohingyas, a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, were given identification cards in Yangon and the right to vote in exchange for backing the USDP, he added.

Some voters who asked officials for help at ballot booths were told to tick the box of the USDP, witnesses said.

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 any real stake due to restrictions such as high fees for each candidate.

Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Bangkok; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alan Raybould