YANGON - Myanmar counted ballots Monday in its first vote in 20 years as Western governments lashed out at the military-ruled nation for orchestrating an election that junta-backed parties look set to easily win.
With democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi still locked up and two pro-junta parties fielding about two-thirds of the total candidates, world leaders rejected the legitimacy of the poll in a broadside of statements.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi swept her party to power in 1990 but the result was never recognised by the ruling generals. She has been detained for most of the last 20 years and supported a boycott of Sunday's election.
US President Barack Obama said the vote would be "anything but free and fair", while Britain said the election would "mean the return to power of a brutal regime".
Yet while conditions for the vote have been widely criticised, some saw the poll as a small step towards democracy after almost five decades of autocratic rule, with opposition parties set to finally get a voice in parliament.
Despite the generals' unpopularity, their political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was widely expected to win, helped by huge financial and campaigning advantages as well as a climate of fear.
In many constituencies the poll was a two-horse race between the USDP and the National Unity Party (NUP), which is the successor to late dictator Ne Win's party and also closely aligned with the military.
A quarter of the seats in the two-chamber national parliament and regional legislatures are reserved for military appointees whatever the outcome. It is unclear when the results will be announced.
Two opposition parties accused the USDP - formed by ministers who retired from the military in April - of illegally collecting advance ballots.
"My sense is that there were certainly cases of intimidation," said Britain's ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Heyn, who expressed concern about the many anecdotal reports of advance voting irregularities.
"These votes are very open to abuses," he told AFP.
The National Democratic Force (NDF), created by former members of Suu Kyi's disbanded party, said some people had complained that they were told by the USDP there was no need to vote as their ballots had already been collected.
But NDF leader Khin Maung Swe said his party was optimistic about its prospects in those areas where it was standing, with queues forming at some polling stations.
"I think people wanted to vote as they haven't voted for a long time," he said.
More than 29 million people were eligible to vote but it was uncertain how many would actually cast ballots, with apathy and disillusionment widespread in the impoverished nation.
The intentions of junta chief Than Shwe remained shrouded in mystery. There has been speculation that he may step down as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but few expect him to relinquish real power.
Obama urged Myanmar to free Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners "immediately and unconditionally".
The European Union said it a statement it regretted that the authorities "did not take the necessary steps to ensure a free, fair and inclusive electoral process".