As democratic transitions in several authoritarian countries have shown, formerly oppressed opposition leaders such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Viktor Andriyovych in Ukraine have later become the head of states in new democratic governments.
Those leaders successfully cemented democracy in place by building up institutions in the executive, legislature and judiciary that earlier rights-curbing regimes never allowed to take root.
A similar though in many ways different transition is now tentatively underway in Myanmar, which was ruled by successive despotic military regimes for nearly five decades until a quasi-civilian government now led by President Thein Sein was elected in 2010. Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party entered parliament in small numbers through by-elections held last April.
Suu Kyi and the NLD had boycotted the 2010 polls as they said these were rigged in favor of military-backed candidates, and the party was later outlawed for its non-participation.
That was rolled back in 2011, paving the way for Suu Kyi and her party to win 43 of the 44 seats it contested in by elections in 2012, giving the NLD a 6.4% share of the seats in parliament.
With new general elections set for 2015, many believe Suu Kyi and the NLD will win in a landslide against the now ruling military-aligned United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) if the polls are held freely and fairly. The NLD overwhelmingly won elections held in 1990, taking 80% of the seats, but the military annulled the results and maintained its iron-clad grip on power.
The NLD held its first National Congress in over 25 years in Yangon on March 9-10, during which Suu Kyi was re-elected party chairwoman, a position she has held since being released from house arrest after the 2010 elections. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate spent 15 of the previous 21 years under house arrest while many of her NLD members were imprisoned and harassed under various draconian laws against political association and activities.
Suu Kyi has stated her desire to become president in 2015. But there are still three big obstacles to that be outcome. First, how can she overcome the constitutional provision that bars any Myanmar citizen whose spouse or children have foreign citizenship from assuming the presidency (Suu Kyi's late husband was a British citizen)? Second, how would the military, which has yet to be reformed and harbors suspicions about the transition to democracy, respond to Suu Kyi's civilian leadership? Third, will Suu Kyi be able to convince other military-linked candidates, including incumbent President Thein Sein and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, to pave the way for her to contest the 2015 polls?
Thein Sein stated at at the Asia Society in New York during his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in late 2012 that he would consider serving a second term if the people wanted him to stay. He had previously said that he would serve only one five-year term due to health reasons. He now uses a pacemaker and presumably his health has significantly improved. At the same time, he indicated that Suu Kyi could take the presidency if the people elect her.
Thein Sein will no doubt campaign on his reform credentials, including his government's negotiations towards ceasefires with various ethnic minority rebel groups, successful outreach to the wider world, especially the West, after decades of international isolation, and economic policies that have increased government salaries, reduced mobile phone costs and outlined plans for poverty reduction. A mass of people recently gathered at Yangon international airport to welcome Thein Sein home after a recent foreign tour, proof to some of the president's rising grass roots popularity.
Suu Kyi's more pressing political challenge, however, will be to amend the 2008 constitution in a way that allows her to assume the presidency before the 2015 polls. There are signs that the military-dominated parliament may consider certain amendments, though not necessarily the current restrictions on the presidency. On March 15, both houses of parliament unanimously agreed to establish a commission to recommend changes to bring the much-criticized charter more in-line with the democratic reform process.
It is still unclear where Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, both presidential hopefuls in 2015, stand on the potential constitutional amendments. The USDP is by far the largest party in parliament with control over more than half of the upper and lower houses' 664 seats and is fortified by the 25% of seats reserved outright for uniformed military officials. Any constitutional amendments must be approved by more than 75% of parliament, meaning the military can block any proposed changes.
Thein Sein recently handed over the USDP's chairman to Shwe Mann, thereby giving the Lower House Speaker authority over any proposed constitutional changes. The handover of the party's reins also means that Suu Kyi must work with Shwe Mann rather than Thein Sein to achieve changes to allow her to run for the presidency in 2015. Media speculated earlier that Suu Kyi had fallen out with Thein Sein after a period of engagement and is now on better working terms with parliamentary leader Shwe Mann.
Still, many political observers doubt Shwe Mann, currently locked in a power struggle with Thein Sein, would be willing to implement changes that undercut his own electoral chances for the presidency. Suu Kyi will need to convince both leaders that constitutional change is necessary for the country's further democratization and development, a view Western governments and donors will no doubt support. The drive to reform the constitution will pit her idealism against the USDP's and military's power politics and show how far the military is willing to go towards genuine democratization.
The jockeying for presidential position has already begun. During a recent trip to observe the conflict and peace process in Kachin State, Shwe Mann said repeatedly, "I'm not a dictator", in conversations with local people. Observers say the comments are consistent with his attempts to distance himself from the previous military junta he served as a high-ranking officer and associate himself with the country's new democratic direction.
Even if the charter is changed in a way that allows Suu Kyi to run for president, it is not clear how the military would ultimately respond to her civilian leadership. In recent statements Suu Kyi has bid to put the military's fears at ease, including in a BBC press interview where she expressed her long-time "fondness" for the army. More significantly, her parliamentary committee's recommendation to continue with a controversial military-invested copper mine despite land seizures from villagers indicated a willingness to protect military commercial interests in the face of grass roots resistance. She notably referred to the need for "national reconciliation" in her committee's recommendations.
Unlike the opposition icons that became national leaders in other transitional democracies, Suu Kyi faces many obstacles to finally assuming Myanmar's presidency. Indeed, some political observers doubt the military will allow free and fair elections to be held in 2015 if Suu Kyi and the NLD are clearly poised to win. Whether Suu Kyi can negotiate the constitutional changes she and her party now seek and convince potential spoilers of her benign intentions will animate Myanmar's politics in the weeks and months ahead.
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