YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar held 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.
While it remained unclear when results would be announced — officials would only say they would come "in time" — there was little doubt that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party would emerge with an enormous share of the parliamentary seats, despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule.
Low turnout and fraud charges marred voting nationwide. Many doubted their ballot would alter the authoritarian status quo.
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Some packed Yangon's pagodas instead of voting. In Haka, capital of Chin state bordering India and Bangladesh, more people attended church than cast ballots, witnesses said.
"We're falling asleep," said a polling station official in Bahan Township in the commercial capital Yangon. "Ward officials are still urging the people to vote."
Many voters said they simply wanted to cast their votes against the junta's politicians.
"I cannot stay home and do nothing," said Yi Yi, a 45-year-old computer technician in Yangon, the country's largest city. "I have to go out and vote against USDP. That's how I will defy them (the junta)."
Voting against them, though, may not matter very much.
'Anything but free and fair'
Election rules were clearly written to benefit the USDP, with hundreds of potential opposition candidates — including pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the last election in 1990 but was barred from taking office — under house arrest or in prison. Many other potential candidates in the poverty-wracked nation were simply unable to raise the $500 registration fee.
The poll 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.
"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," U.S. President Barack Obama told students in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai.
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Armed riot police stood guard at polling booths or patrolled streets in military trucks in Yangon, part of a security 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.
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 November 13.
Her release could energize pro-democracy forces and put pressure on the West to roll back sanctions.
Seats up for grabs
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.
"They are not of the same machinery," a Western diplomat said of the two dominant parties, citing tensions between the two on the campaign trail. "The USDP is very much the regime's party while the NUP has a longer legacy," he added, referring to its founding under the rule of late dictator Ne Win.
Ne Win was placed under house arrest in 2002 by Than Shwe, who accused him of treason. Ne Win died that year.
Regardless, the military will emerge the unquestioned winner. Twenty-five percent of seats in all chambers are reserved for serving generals. That means army-backed parties needs to win just 26 percent of seats for the military and its proxies to secure a majority in the legislature.
Elections 'have already achieved something'
Despite the storm of criticism, some voters and experts on Myanmar said the election could herald a modicum of change from the decades of iron-fisted rule and gross economic mismanagement of the resource-rich nation.
"The elections, for all their farcical elements, have already achieved something: Burmese people are listening and talking more about politics than they have for a long time," said Monique Skidmore of the Australian National University. "It seems likely that the very small public political space will be widened and this is probably the best outcome we can hope for from the election."
Optimists say even a handful of opposition parliamentarians could allow for limited government oversight, and possibly pave the way for more political change in the years to come.
But even with a predictable outcome, the army appears to be taking no chances. 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.
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 assistance 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.
The regime has also been criticized for its brutal treatment of ethnic minorities seeking greater autonomy.
In the wake of rising tension before the election, the junta canceled voting in 3,400 villages in ethnic minority areas and has increased its military presence in the countryside. About 1.5 million of the country's 59 million people have thus been disenfranchised.
Some ethnic minority groups, like the Karen, have been fighting the government since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1948. Others, including the powerful Wa and Kachin, had forged cease-fire agreements that now appear in jeopardy amid fears that the constitution activated by the elections would quash their hopes for a federal system.
With ethnic minorities making up about 40 percent of the population, the outbreak of a full-scale civil war would have disastrous economic, political and humanitarian consequences. Some 600,000 ethnic minority people have already sought refuge in neighboring countries.
"We fear an increase in violence in many parts of Burma after the election and more refugees fleeing to the border with Thailand. There will be no change, no end to suffering, for the people on the ground," said Charm Tong, an exiled activist from the Shan minority.
For many people in Myanmar, the election brought little but fear.
"I voted for (Suu Kyi's party) in 1990. This is my second time to vote," said a 60-year-old man in Yangon, Tin Aung, when asked which party he had voted for.
He then looked around and added: "I am really scared."
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.