Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) were swept into Burma’s parliament on Sunday after 45 by-elections were held across the country amid unprecedented political reforms that could see an end to crippling economic sanctions.
The polls pitted the NLD directly against the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party(USDP), and victory will give the 66 year-old an unprecedented say in Burma’s political life.
More than 170 candidates from 17 political parties contested the by-elections,with early results suggesting Suu Kyi had picked up at least 65 percent of the vote.
An official declaration could take days.
“Suu Kyi remains the symbol of hope for Burmese looking for a change in their fortunes. Her victory could create exaggerated expectations about the pace and scope of change,” says Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Thousands turned out in their respective electorates, claiming their right to vote in one of the few polls Burma has held in the last 25 years. For the Nobel laureate, who spent 15 of those years under house arrest, her poor village of Wa Thin Kha in her seat of Kawhmu provided a stunning backdrop for her win.
However, her voice in parliament will be limited as the opposition NLD will hold only a tiny minority in the 664-seat assembly. Another three by-elections were abandoned due to security reasons.
Still, Thayer adds: “What is significant is that the government permitted Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD to register and run in so many constituencies.”
Her victory will also be seen as a plus by Naypyidaw, and in particular President Thein Sein, who is currently in Cambodia for the annual summit of the Association of South East Asia Nations.
Suu Kyi had already criticized the campaign, saying it couldn’t be described as democratic after reports of irregularities involving voting rolls. This continued on the day amid complaints that dead people were still listed and legitimate voters weren’t, despite having registered.
In Shan state, there were complaints ballots had been waxed, preventing voters from marking the papers as they saw fit.
Election monitors from ASEAN and its 10 dialogue partners including the United States, European Union, China and Australia are still assessing the polls. In the West, governments are considering whether to ease sanctions, and it remains to be seen if they will be satisfied that the polls broadly reflected the will of the people.
Thayer says the key question is whether the polls are seen as comparatively free and fair, and what will happen now Suu Kyi and her party appears to have won a substantial number of seats. This will create a bloc of truly independent deputies who could question government policies.
“These elections are really more about testing the coalition of reformers behind the president,” Thayer says. “If Suu Kyi and the NLD win convincingly, will this provoke a backlash?”
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said in Canberra that he had noted comments from Suu Kyi that there have been voting irregularities.
“We will speak to her. We are going to speak to other figures in opposition about those irregularities,” Carr said. “But it is clearly in the interests of Thein Sein, the country’s president, to get international recognition for the modernization of Burma.”
Suu Kyi’s decision to press ahead with her electoral bid is widely seen as legitimizing Thein Sein, whose government came to power in 2010 in a general election widely regarded as rigged. With cashed-up business knocking at his country’s doors, the president has indicated he hoped “The Lady” would do well.
The NLD won a landslide election victory in 1990, but the result was eventually annulled by the military. The party boycotted the 2010 vote, but relented in regards to the current by-elections after the government amended its electoral laws.
“Suu Kyi must also work out her role in the country’s future,” Thayer says. “She must decide whether it is best to sit in the assembly or to work with the government. This will test her leadership over those NLD candidates who are successful, and the NLD as an organization itself.”