RANGOON—Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in Sunday’s parliamentary by-elections is the biggest prize of her political career. But the weekend vote for only a few dozen legislative seats may have sown the seeds of something far more significant—the possibility her party could sweep the next balloting in 2015 and take control of Burma’s government.
That, for now, remains only a tantalizing dream for her supporters, and making it happen in three years may be unrealistic in a nation still heavily influenced by a feared military whose powers and influence remain enshrined in the Constitution.
Still, hope for installing a truly free government has not run this high in decades.
“We hope this will be the beginning of a new era,” a beaming 66-year-old Suu Kyi said in a brief victory speech on Monday, one day after the by-elections in which her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 40 of the 44 seats it contested, according to the Union Election Commission.
The win was “not so much our triumph, as a triumph of the people,” she told a euphoric, thousands-strong crowd gathered outside her tumbledown party headquarters in Yangon, where joyous supporters thrust hands in the air and monks cradled magazine-size posters bearing her image.
The last time her party won a landslide victory, during a general election in 1990, the then-ruling army junta annulled the results and stayed in power 21 more years.
Times have changed dramatically since then in Burma, also called Myanmar. The junta is no more, and the country’s new leaders—many of whom are former generals—have proven with Sunday’s poll that they are capable of taking concrete steps toward democratic rule, even if they had little to lose by doing so this time around.
But much remains the same. The military and the retired generals who hold the nation’s top posts still wield near-absolute power, and Suu Kyi and her party will occupy only a small minority in the 664-seat legislature—not enough to change a Constitution engineered to keep the status quo by allotting 25 percent of Parliament’s seats to the army.
Reducing the military’s participation in government “is one of the most important changes” that need to be made, said Su Su Lwin, an opposition candidate who also won a seat in Sunday’s ballot.
And perhaps one of the most difficult. “There’s a lot of work ahead,” she said.
The weekend election results, though, indicate that the popularity of the party Suu Kyi founded in 1988 remains strong—strong enough, perhaps, to secure the legislative majority it would need during the next national poll to choose the president.
It is unclear, however, whether Suu Kyi would run. She has not declared any intention to do so, but on Friday she said the by-elections’ outcome would “very much influence what happens in 2015.”
A provision in Burma’s Constitution, though, bars people from the nation’s top post if they or any of their relatives are foreign citizens. Suu Kyi married a British national, Michael Aris, who died in 1999, and their two children were born abroad and do not live in Burma.
There are also concerns over Suu Kyi’s health. She suspended her last week of campaigning because of fatigue, and she would be 69 when the next vote is held.
Suu Kyi last week dismissed speculation she would accept a cabinet post if offered one, saying, “I have no intention of leaving the Parliament which I am trying so hard to get into.”
There is speculation that the government is only using Suu Kyi to impress Western nations and get years of economic sanctions lifted. Still, her entry into the legislature is hugely symbolic, as is her party’s overwhelming win.
“This election is an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation, and we hope it is an indication that the government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency, and reform,” the White House said in a statement on Monday.
Among the seats taken by the opposition on Sunday were four in the capital, Naypyidaw, a ruling party stronghold which was built by the former junta. It was an embarrassing sign of defeat for the government.
“The people have made a statement,” Su Su Lwin said. “They’re saying—not only to the country, but to the rest of the world—that our people are ready for change.”
Toe Toe Tin, a dentist who came to watch Suu Kyi speak, said the election was important because it was a referendum on the miserable state of life in the country. “It showed that people don’t want this government or this army,” she said.
There is little wonder why. Until last year, the military had kept an iron grip on power since 1962. Soldiers were accused by rights groups of dragging civilians to the front line in multiple wars with rebels in the north and east, of raping women and subjecting children and men even in their 70s to forced labor.
Even in the calmer parts of Burma, the former junta deployed state agents to conduct random checks of homes after midnight to make sure all the people were where they should be. That practice was quietly stopped last year when President Thein Sein came to power, but most people still report their movements to authorities because no one has officially announced that the practice has ended.
“There have been changes, yes,” Toe Toe Tin said. “But we expect this could all disappear overnight. There are no guarantees.”
Suu Kyi appears to be taking no chances, and her party clearly considered Sunday’s ballot as a rehearsal for the next vote in three years’ time.
On Monday, she said the opposition was reporting a list of irregularities observed on voting day to the election commission “not in any spirit of vengeance or anger, but … with the intention of making sure that things improve in the future.”