The election to be held in Burma tomorrow deserves all the cynicism that outside observers have been throwing at it.
Twenty years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy shocked the country's military rulers by winning 80 per cent of the vote. That was not supposed to happen then, and the junta has taken elaborate precautions to ensure that there is no chance at all of it happening now. It has drawn the rules in such a way as to guarantee the military a quarter of the seats in the new parliament; the two main parties are proxies for the military, and Ms Suu Kyi's NDL is excluded because it refused to ditch her.
Any prospect of democracy dawning in Burma as a result of these elections can be ruled out. The immediate political outlook looks as bleak as the country's experience of the recent past. The most that can probably be hoped for is that, once the sham voting is over, Ms Suu Kyi's long years of house arrest come to an end. That would be scant consolation for an electoral victory ruthlessly extinguished – a living martyrdom is no substitute for the exercise of power democratically won. Yet the political situation could be just a fraction less black and white than it appears.
That the junta has decided to hold any elections at all can be interpreted in different ways. At worst, it is a ploy to provide continued military rule a veneer of legitimacy – in the eyes of Burma's own people and those of the world. And if the junta believes that a travesty of an election will confer international acceptability, it must be proved wrong.
At best, though, this election might be seen as a first tentative step towards a measure of pluralism. The NDL may not be taking part, but the National Democratic Force, which broke away from it, is – as are several other groupings. The political palette is almost an unqualified monotone, but not quite. Rates of participation, the conduct of the poll and, more particularly, the count will need to be scrutinised carefully. There is a possibility that the results could divulge more about the state of Burma than its present rulers would like.
For elections pose risks, even when they are held in tightly regimented countries and hedged about with all the precautions defensive leaders can mobilise. Nor is Burma as politically moribund as it often appears. It is only three years since pro-democracy campaigners and Buddhist monks dared to mount open protests. That the demonstrations were brutally suppressed does not mean that the aspirations voiced then have gone away.
For the military regime, the greater risk will not be Sunday's election, but the aftermath. As elections from Ukraine to Kenya to Iran have shown, the opportunity to vote can raise expectations that may threaten the status quo, and a result that seems to betray those expectations may very quickly become incendiary. Rather than providing a carefully controlled outlet for popular frustrations, a misfired election can have precisely the opposite effect.
This is hardly the first time that hopes, however faint, have been raised about the possibility of a freer and more democratic Burma. Popular protests have been hailed; apparent hints from the ruling generals over-interpreted. Each time, those hopes have been dashed, and there are not many more grounds for optimism now.