As Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party appeared headed to a historic election victory, the focus turned Monday to something Myanmar’s legendary democracy activist has never had to do: govern.
In her decades-long fight against one of the world’s most repressive military governments, Suu Kyi has rarely been dirtied by politics, acquiring an almost godlike aura among millions of supporters. With her National League for Democracy claiming a landslide in Sunday’s parliamentary polls, Suu Kyi for the first time could face the challenge of helping to lead a government still dominated by a powerful and opaque army establishment.
Election officials by late Monday had announced results from only a fraction of the 498 parliamentary seats being contested, but the NLD won nearly all of them, leading some party officials to claim a nationwide landslide. Suu Kyi also hinted at a sweeping victory, telling supporters to “be understanding of those who lose.”
Even if the party wins more than two-thirds of the seats being contested -- which would give it a majority in a legislature that includes seats reserved for the army -- Suu Kyi would have to tread carefully with the generals who control key government ministries and chunks of the economy.
Allies and analysts say the icon -- sometimes referred to simply as “the Lady” -- has shown little appetite for compromise, sidelined or rebuffed possible partners and developed a reputation for arrogance.
Admirers say it is that self-belief, built during 15 years of house arrest, that has brought the Nobel Peace Prize laureate to the brink of a political victory that not long ago seemed unthinkable. Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military control for more than five decades, the last four years under a civilian government led by former generals.
But transforming this Southeast Asian nation from an isolated backwater into a modern, functioning country will probably require a different set of skills.
Under Myanmar’s military-written constitution, Suu Kyi cannot become president – a post selected by the parliament – because it does not allow anyone with close foreign relatives to hold the position. Her late husband and their children are British.
She raised eyebrows when she said on the eve of the election that she would hold a post “above the president” if the NLD won.
The comments drew instant comparisons to retired Gen. Than Shwe – the reclusive commander widely believed to be pulling the strings of the ruling party – and worried supporters who said it would prompt the military to wonder whether it should cede more power.
“The Lady should not have said that,” said Robert Sann Aung, a prominent human rights lawyer, who has pictures of Suu Kyi plastered across the walls of his cluttered second-story office in downtown Yangon.
A broader problem, Sann Aung said, is that the NLD has no “second line” of leaders after Suu Kyi. Many of the aging dissidents who formed the party’s secretariat have died. During the election campaign, she was the party’s sole face, crisscrossing the country and sometimes leaving NLD supporters at rallies unsure of who the party’s local candidates were.
The NLD rejected candidacy applications from the “88 Generation,” a respected cohort of democracy activists who were jailed in student demonstrations in 1988 – apparently out of fear, experts believe, that the younger group could emerge as rivals to the 70-year-old Suu Kyi.
“What the NLD missed out on with that decision was the middle generation,” said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Yangon. “They have well-known older leaders and enthusiastic young grass-roots support. But there’s no second tier of leadership that can take over from Suu Kyi.”
Although the 88 Generation activists supported the NLD in the election, Mya Aye, a member of the group, called the rejection of their candidates “a mistake” and hinted at a deepening rift.
“What we learned is that we need to depend on ourselves and not just support NLD,” he said. “The 2015 election is over, but in the future the 88 Generation could become the third-biggest political party in Myanmar,” following the NLD and the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Suu Kyi’s approach also irked some smaller parties, including those representing ethnic minority groups that make up 40% of Myanmar’s 53 million people.
Before the campaign, some ethnic leaders tried to discuss strategy with Suu Kyi in parliament, to which she was elected in 2012 after the army freed her from house arrest. Aye Maung, leader of the largest ethnic party in the western state of Rakhine, said he asked Suu Kyi in vain not to campaign in his state, fearing that NLD and ethnic Rakhine candidates would split votes.
“We are also on the front lines of fighting to get the army out of politics,” Aye Maung said. “We can be partners in parliament. But when I asked her to leave Rakhine state to us, she was silent. She wants to form a one-party government.”
Suu Kyi calls the criticism a sign that she is “a real politician” and said of the NLD’s ability to run a government, “It can’t be worse than what we have already.”
Although she has attacked the military, analysts say, Suu Kyi has walked a tricky line politically. To avoid antagonizing hard-line elements of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, she has not spoken out against the government’s discriminatory policies toward Muslims, disappointing human rights activists – including many in the Obama administration.
Democratic presidential candidate and former secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has written warmly of her friendship with Suu Kyi, and President Obama has visited her twice at her lakeside residence in Yangon. Yet some U.S. officials have grown weary of Suu Kyi’s style, which they describe as impatient and haughty.
Obama administration officials say the success of the election will determine whether the U.S. continues to roll back economic sanctions that it began lifting in 2012, when President Thein Sein’s government instituted the first democratic reforms.
Little of the criticism of Suu Kyi has dampened the ardor of her legions of fans, more than 1,000 of whom stood in a downpour Monday outside NLD headquarters in Yangon in the hope of catching a glimpse of her.
The faces in the crowd, many wearing stickers emblazoned with her likeness, testified to how long and how deeply Suu Kyi has represented Myanmar’s democratic struggle. Young hipsters with spiked purple hair, old men with traditional sarongs tied above their navels, middle-aged market women wearing straw hats all gathered to sing songs about her and celebrate the party’s apparent triumph.
“There is no one who can bring change like her; she is our champion,” said Kim Wun, a burger shop owner who brought his 16-year-old daughter.
“According to the law, Daw Suu can’t be president,” he said, referring to her as “Aunt Suu.” “But in our hearts she is already the president.”