The election rally for Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy this week was a colorful, maddening array: three-wheeled rickshaws clogged the roads, blasting music and displaying the red colors and posters of their national heroine.
“We want a change,” said Oak Han, 41, who said he makes the equivalent of less than $3 a day driving his bicycle taxi. “We want change that benefits the people.”
Myanmar, once one of the world’s most isolated countries, holds a general election Sunday that is steeped in lofty expectations, as Wednesday’s rickshaw rally demonstrated. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is expected to win the popular vote, possibly by a large margin. But even if she does, it’s far from clear that this icon of democracy can wrest power from the country’s military. Or that her party can govern effectively.
“This is a very momentous occasion,” said Ma Thida, a writer and former political prisoner who once worked for Suu Kyi. While Myanmar held a general election in 2010, its results were not seen as legitimate, she noted, since Suu Kyi’s NLD party refused to participate, seeing the results as rigged.
This time, said Ma Thida, Myanmar’s 51 million people are fully engaged. At the same time, she said, they may be overly optimistic that they are on the cusp of real democracy.
“This society always uses its heart instead of its brains,” she said, adding that people need to take a clear-eyed view of the power struggles that will continue to confront Myanmar, regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s voting.
Previously known as Burma, Myanmar holds a particular fascination across Asia and the West partly because it was closed off from the world for so long. It achieved independence from the British in 1948, but not peacefully. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, is considered the father of the nation, but he was murdered by his rivals six months before independence. That led to decades of harsh military rule, isolation and economic sanctions.
In 1988, Suu Kyi returned from exile amid a popular uprising against the Burmese regime. Two years later, her NLD party won overwhelmingly in free elections but the military refused to cede power, and Suu Kyi spent most of the next 23 years under house arrest, becoming an iconic figure at home and abroad.
Over the last four years, Myanmar’s military has loosened its grip, allowing a reformist government to come to power under a former general, Thein Sein. Sein has received accolades for liberating political prisoners and reintroducing some press freedoms. In return, the United States and other countries have suspended sanctions against Myanmar, and President Barack Obama visited in 2012.
Yet the military continues to pull political strings. Under the country’s 2008 constitution, drawn up by the former regime, a quarter of Myanmar’s Parliament members must come from the armed forces. That means the NLD on Sunday must win 67 seats nationwide – either by itself or in coalition – to rule without having to constantly cut deals with the Parliament’s military bloc.
The 2008 constitution also states that Myanmar cannot elect a president with family who are foreign citizens. That requirement, clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, effectively bans her from the presidency, since her late husband was British, as are her two sons.
Even so, Suu Kyi has made clear she intends to hold the reins of power if the NLD wins, regardless of who holds the title of president. At a news conference Thursday at her family’s lakeside estate in Yangon, she said she would be “above the president.” She then brushed off a query about whether the constitution would allow such an arrangement.
“The constitution says nothing about someone being ‘above the president,’” said Suu Kyi, one of her several terse responses to an assemblage of reporters.
In recent months, Suu Kyi’s stubborn style has raised eyebrows among Myanmar’s intelligentsia, some of whom fear the country could be trading one autocrat for another. Even so, she remains hugely popular among rural Burmese, who see her as their only hope for escaping poverty and corruption. They have shown up by the tens of thousands as she has campaigned across Myanmar’s vast hinterlands.
By comparison, Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party has led a low-profile and uninspired campaign, leading to speculation that the party hopes to stay in power by means other than appealing to the masses.
At a press conference Thursday at her family’s estate in Yangon, the 70-year-old Suu Kyi accused her opponents of rampant election fraud.
“There is advance voting taking place in a totally illegal way,” she said, adding that the nation’s election commission has done little to stop it.
There have also been acts of intimidation against Suu Kyi’s candidates. A week ago, a gang used machetes to attack a National League for Democracy member of Parliament, Naing Ngan Lynn, in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon). The attack inspired Wednesday’s rally, which drew hundreds of rickshaw drivers to the streets. Naing Ngan Lynn was there as well, waving his bandaged arms to the crowds out of the sunroof of a van.
According to government figures, more than 10,000 foreign and local observers are on hand to monitor the election, including a team from the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
“We have been told we will have access to all polling places,” said Jonathan Stonestreet, who is heading up the Carter Center mission in Myanmar. “If we show up and we don’t have access, then that will be a concern.”
The election is drawing international attention for reasons that go beyond the fate of a fledgling democracy, said Aaron Connelly, a Southeast Asia specialist for the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.
Myanmar sits strategically between India and China, he noted. By rejecting some of the deals the military junta signed with Beijing, Myanmar has helped serve as a hedge against Chinese influence across Southeast Asia.
Yet it is far from certain that Myanmar will continue down this path, just as it is unclear that Suu Kyi will win in a landslide. Connelly said the National League for Democracy has alienated ethnic parties and some youth groups by how it has selected its candidates for office. As a result, the ruling party might be able to cobble together a coalition that could choose the next president.
There’s also the chance that the military could seek to nullify the election results, as it did in 1990, if Suu Kyi wins big. Connelly said he doubts that would happen, given the international attention.
But all bets are off, he said, if she quickly moves to alter the 1988 constitution that serves as a check on her power.
“It’s hard to know how the military might react to that,” he said, “given that it has fought so hard to prevent changes in the constitution.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth