Voting began in Myanmar’s first election in 20 years today amid both a barrage of criticism that the balloting was rigged in favour of the ruling military and hope that some change toward democratic reform might nonetheless follow.

About 40,000 polling stations across the Southeast Asian country opened shortly after 6 a.m. (2330 GMT) and were to close 10 hours later. The regime left everyone guessing as to when results would be announced, saying only they could come “in time.”

However, it was almost certain that through pre-election engineering the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party would emerge as the victor despite widespread popular opposition to 48 years of military rule.

The USDP is fielding 1,112 candidates for the 1,159 seats in the two-house national parliament and 14 regional parliaments. Its closest rival, the National Unity Party with 995 candidates, is backed by supporters of Myanmar’s previous military ruler.

The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, is contesting just 164 spots.

Election rules were clearly written to benefit the USDP, and hundreds of potential opposition candidates including pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, are under house arrest or in prison. Several parties have complained that voters have been strong-armed into voting for the junta’s proxy party.

Whatever the results, the constitution sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees.

“These elections are going to be neither free, nor fair, or inclusive. There is nothing in these elections that could give us grounds for optimism,” British Ambassador Andrew Heyn told The Associated Press on the eve of the balloting, which he described as a “badly missed opportunity” for democratic change.

Yangon-based diplomats from the European Union, British, French, German, Italian as well as the United States turned down an invitation from the government to take “exploratory tours” today due to rules applying to the visits. The regime earlier banned foreign journalists and international poll monitors from the election.

Despite the storm of criticism, some voters and experts on Myanmar, also known as Burma, 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.

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