By any estimate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy — a long-suffering movement of civilians fighting for their rights against a relentless junta — should have died years ago. And yet, a quarter century after a landslide electoral victory the party was never allowed to assert, it is the undisputed favorite in Sunday’s general election, expected to wrest a popular mandate from the Union Solidarity and Development Party of President Thein Sein, the former military government’s unavowed successor.
Supporters perched on tamarind trees and rooftops to fly the N.L.D.’s red flag, or flocked by the thousands to catch a glimpse of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi as she campaigned across the country. Their fervor leaves little doubt about the enduring popularity of a party that has stood for freedom through many cycles of arrests since its birth from a mass uprising in 1988.
Although a quasi-civilian government has significantly loosened the state’s controls since 2011, the military remains omnipotent under the 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the junta. The Constitution bars Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. Massive errors mar voter lists. Thousands of ballots may be dismissed because many voters do not know how to stamp them. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have been disenfranchised.
In the face of such obstacles, the N.L.D., a party of wizened dissidents and greenhorn politicians, offers Myanmar its least bad chance at democracy — thanks to its tried-and-tested stand against military rule, its candidates’ grit and the trust that people place in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s redoubtable, often imperious, leadership.
For her final campaign speech last Sunday, officials forbade Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from speaking in People’s Park near Shwedagon Pagoda, the site of her inaugural address as head of the democracy movement in 1988, and a mythologized rallying point for protests past. Relegated to a suburban field, she spoke before a flag-bearing ocean of thousands of people. “If they offer you incentives, by all means take them,” she said, referring to the U.S.D.P., which allegedly has been buying votes. “Then vote for the N.L.D.”
Only 75 percent of seats in regional and national parliaments will be contested in Sunday’s election; the Constitution assigns the remaining 25 percent to the military. Short of the N.L.D. winning more than two-thirds of available seats — and being allowed to take them — the decks are stacked against any sweeping or sudden changes. No matter which party secures a majority of the vote, the president’s ultimate selection requires agreement on an appointee from the upper and lower houses of Parliament and the military, which will likely take weeks of horse-trading.
Some have expressed skepticism about the N.L.D. candidates’ qualifications for parliamentary politics. Yet everyone is a novice in a country where legislatures only emerged in 2011, after the junta’s dissolution. N.L.D. executives tout the fact that 75 percent of their 1,130 candidates are university graduates — an army of potential technocrats ready for the urgent tasks of reforming education, law, health care and an economy still dominated by military-linked conglomerates.
The N.L.D. hasn’t bothered to count the number of former political prisoners among its candidates. Partly that’s because calling attention to them threatens a military wary of one day being held accountable for its past abuses. But mainly the party hasn’t needed to, because the presence of dissidents within the ranks is a given — and the risks they took for truth and justice during the dark days of the junta are a chief point of trust among N.L.D. supporters.
“I understand the language of people’s hearts,” said Pyone Cho, a N.L.D. candidate running in the city’s former dumping grounds of Dawbon. At 49, his resume includes 20 years in prison as a chief instigator of the 1988 student uprising and co-founding a major civil-society organization when he was freed. His campaign speeches convey the ease and confidence of someone used to mobilizing people; he has had little difficulty putting his experience in the service of formal political campaigning.
Years spent — on pain of torture and prison — teaching people about their rights, doing social work or coordinating clandestine networks while creatively evading the junta’s thick network of spies and informers offer arguably more gritty and granular qualification for tackling Myanmar’s many problems than the experience of candidates from the U.S.D.P. or other parties who pushed paper and took orders from military officers in a corrupt civil service.
The N.L.D. won 43 of the 44 seats it contested in the 2012 by-election, but that amounted to just 7 percent of Parliament. With the military’s de facto veto, and the U.S.D.P.’s control over an absolute majority of the remaining seats, the N.L.D. can point to few great legislative successes since then.
Yet people have little trouble understanding that with no more than a toehold in power, the N.L.D. could scarcely have made revolutionary changes. And the N.L.D. has made progress locally, building schools and digging wells, say, or refurbishing the derelict Yangon General Hospital. Arguably the party’s most delicate task, and greatest achievement to date, has been to build a measure of trust across the old military-civilian divide, notably with Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament (whom President Thein Sein purged as head of the U.S.D.P. in August, reportedly because of his rapprochement with the N.L.D.).
The N.L.D. has been criticized abroad for failing to speak out on behalf of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, and for not fielding a single Muslim candidate. In Myanmar, it has had less trouble maintaining its stance as the party of inclusion. Earlier this year its 43 members of Parliament voted against four bills on marriage and religious conversions that targeted Muslims. The laws, which passed nonetheless, were the initiative of Ma Ba Tha, an ultra-nationalist Buddhist network. The group’s virulence is such that, according to N.L.D. executives, Muslim citizens asked the N.L.D. to exclude them as candidates: They worried that their presence on the party’s ticket would cost it precious votes, but trusted the N.L.D. to protect minority rights once in power.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the world has held up as an icon of interfaith moral virtue, demonstrates a hardnosed mixture of democratic values and high-handedness. At a press conference on Thursday, she said five times that she would rule above the president in any N.L.D.-led government: “We have someone who is prepared to represent the N.L.D. as a president, but I will make all the proper and important decisions with regard to government.”
Even those N.L.D. executives who concede that this approach deviates from democratic ideals say it is a necessary step in a military-dominated system with a flawed Constitution that denies the people their clear choice for president. The N.L.D. never professed to replace military rule overnight. And driving Myanmar toward democracy within the generals’ legal parameters means making some strange compromises along the way.
Delphine Schrank is the author of The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma.