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Early results in heavily criticized Myanmar elections favour junta-backed party

Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years Sunday, a vote that passed under heavy security and with little obvious enthusiasm from voters.

Early results tallied by the exile newspaper The Irrawaddy showed the junta's Union Solidarity and Development party headed towards a predictable victory, having won six seats, according to the newspaper's sources, versus one for the opposition National Democratic Front.

The most important number might be the voter turnout rate following a call from the country's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, to boycott the election. The party's leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest, as she has been for most of the two decades since the NLD swept a 1990 vote, only to have the military step in and annul the election.

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The NLD lost its official status as political party after refusing to register candidates in Sunday's election, which many view as a rigged affair meant to lend legitimacy to the internationally isolated regime.

A reporter in Myanmar's largest city, Rangoon, saw only a trickle of people going to vote and no line-ups at polling stations. While political parties taking part in the election estimated nationwide turnout at 60 per cent or higher, foreign ambassadors in the country said they saw no evidence of large numbers of people going to vote.

After polls closed, state television broadcast lengthy footage of Gen. Than Shwe and his subordinates casting their ballots in clean and empty polling stations. Newsreaders repeatedly said voters had cast their ballots "freely and happily," and said the election had been witnessed by foreign diplomats, including some from North Korea, Vietnam, India and China, as well as the "Foreign Correspondents' Club of Rangoon."

The election isn't expected to fundamentally alter how power works in a country that is largely ruled at the whim of one man, Senior General Than Shwe. He was not a candidate in the election, but is expected to remain the final authority on almost everything as commander-in-chief of the army.

Unlike in 1990, the junta has left little room for the voters to surprise them. Under a constitution passed in a 2008 referendum, 25 per cent of the seats in the two-chamber parliament are reserved for the military. With the resources of the regime at its disposal, and opposition parties denied access to the media, the junta's Union Solidarity and Development Party - led by members of the incumbent government and recently retired generals - was expected to have little trouble securing a majority that would allow it to choose the next president and government.

Pro-military candidates made up accounted for more than two-thirds of the candidates seeking the 1,159 available seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament. The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, is contesting just 164 spots.

"I do not think the vote will change anything… there is no way to change the premeditated election results," said Soe Aung, a member of the Forum for Democracy in Burma. "There are a few independent or opposition candidates who will be elected, but they will be a tiny minority. This parliament will be a rubber stamp parliament to carry out the decisions of the (military)."

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Speaking on a visit to India, United States President Barrack Obama called the vote "anything but free and fair." Myanmarese had "been denied the right to determine their own destiny," he said. Foreign media and election observers were denied visas for the vote.

Those who did cast ballots said they did so with few expectations that anything would change. "I crossed them all out so they could not use my vote," said Mg, a 47-year-old cook working at a Rangoon restaurant.

Even state television seemed bored with the vote, broadcasting no news about it during the day and showing soap operas and golf instructional videos instead. Newscasts were filled with reports of road upgrades and natural gas production figures. No mention was made of the ongoing vote.

In more than 100 districts, the only competition in many areas was between candidates from the junta's USDP and the National Unity Party, another pro-military party headed by loyalists of Ne Win, Gen. Than Shwe's late predecessor.

Ron Hoffman, Canada's ambassador to Thailand with responsibility for Myanmar (which the Canadian government calls Burma) said there was initially some excitement inside the country about the election, particularly among young Myanmarese who hoped it would be the first step towards political change.

"Systematically, that hope was eliminated by the regime," he said. "It's another tragedy for Burma."

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(With reporting from a special correspondent in Rangoon.)

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