Burmese junta set to make a mockery of election

Voters in the secretive military-ruled nation of Burma cast their first ballots in 20 years yesterday, as slim hopes for democratic reform faced an electoral system engineered to ensure that most power will remain in the hands of the junta and its political proxies.

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.

Many voters said they simply wanted to cast their votes against the junta's politicians.

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"I cannot stay home and do nothing," said Yi Yi, a 45-year-old computer technician in Rangoon, 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.

The junta's proxy party, which is led by a just-retired general and has the government's enormous financial resources at its disposal, is fielding 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments.

The largest anti-government party, the National Democratic Force, is contesting just 164 spots.

Election rules were clearly written to benefit the USDP, with hundreds of potential opposition candidates – including pro-democracy heroine 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 310 registration fee.

Several parties say many voters were already strong-armed into casting ballots for the junta's proxy party in a system of advance voting.

No matter the election results, the constitution sets aside 25 per cent of parliamentary seats for military appointments.

Suu Kyi has dismissed the election as rigged and urged her party, the National League for Democracy, to boycott the vote, leading to its dissolution.

Few observers expected surprises from the election.

"The only real surprise result would be that one pro-establishment party would beat an even more pro-establishment party," British Ambassador Andrew Heyn said yesterday. He was referring to the USDP's closest rival, the National Unity Party, which is backed by supporters of the country's previous military ruler.

Mr Heyn called the election a "huge missed opportunity" for democratic change.

Foreign Secretary William Hague today condemned the "flawed elections" which have taken place in Burma. Mr Hague said the result was a "foregone conclusion" and that the ballot was not "free, fair or inclusive".

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit out at Burma's military rulers, calling the elections deeply flawed and a sign of "heartbreaking" repression in the country.

In a speech to Australian university students, Mrs Clinton also called on the military-led government in Fiji to restore democracy in the Pacific island nation.

She said she hoped Burma's election, the first in 20 years, could produce a few new leaders who might change the country's direction. But she stressed the United States would continue to support an international inquiry into human rights abuses in the country.