No words can quite capture the significance of Aung San Suu Kyi's resounding victory in Myanmar's Nov. 8 elections. Despite competing for only three-quarters of the seats in parliament -- as according to the army-drafted constitution a quarter is reserved for the military -- Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party acquired a supermajority in both houses, winning just on 80% of seats in both houses of parliament as of Nov. 17. The incumbent military-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party was decimated, winning a mere 41 seats of those announced by then. This was a vote for "The Lady," as she is widely known, as much as it was a vote against the ruling USDP. Even the bureaucrats and military personnel in Naypyitaw, the main constituencies in the otherwise sparsely populated capital, voted for change by overwhelmingly choosing the NLD.
Now comes Suu Kyi's true test of leadership. The nation is looking to her to end economic hardship, protect human rights and defend political freedoms -- a tall order given the deep wounds inflicted over six decades of military rule. She has to transition from leader of the opposition to leader of all the people, despite a military-drafted constitution that forbids her from assuming the office of president. She inherits a system in which the military not only remains the most robust institution but also constitutionally retains control over the country's security apparatus and the subnational administrative system. The constitution has been designed to ensure that the military's dark shadow continues to loom over the administration, poised to take over the reins of government if the pace or direction of change is not to its liking.
Suu Kyi's immediate challenge is to navigate a treacherous four-month transition to a new administration. How can she use this interim period to best position her party to take over the reins of government?
As the leader of the NLD, her highest priority should be to use her speeches and media statements to project calm competence, shape expectations, and reach out to all segments of society. No matter how clear she may be about her policy priorities, she should use the next four months to hold consultations with different stakeholders across the country -- ethnic armed groups, minority communities, the monkhood, civil society organizations, local governments, and of course, the military. By listening to their views, her message will be one of inclusion, thus signaling a departure from the previous government's rather exclusionary approach.
Another priority will be to identify candidates for president and vice president. The NLD's supermajority in both houses of parliament gives Suu Kyi single-handed authority to select the president and one vice president (a second vice president will be selected by the military). Although she has said she will make all the decisions and "the president will have no authority," she will nevertheless have to choose her presidential candidate wisely. Once appointed, the constitution (Article 71) ensures the president can only be removed through impeachment proceedings. Perhaps more important, the military should be comfortable with her choice.
She also faces the task of selecting a capable and reform-minded cabinet with the ability to address the country's daunting social and economic challenges. Even the most competent administration would find it difficult to meet the electorate's astronomically high expectations. The NLD, however -- with its few, if any, experienced administrators -- must now manage ministries where the senior ranks are almost all ex-military, many with questionable allegiance to the new administration. Suu Kyi should not hesitate to reach outside the NLD to select the best talent available for the next cabinet, even if, in some instances, it may mean cherry picking from the USDP leadership (some of whom have strong reform credentials). If the selection can be made relatively quickly, the upcoming four months can be usefully employed to acquaint the "shadow cabinet" with policy priorities and administrative procedures, and to set up cross-ministerial coordination arrangements. The new government must prepare well if it is to ensure an orderly transition with clear expectations of deliverables in the administration's early period.
Periodic, constructive consultations between the incoming and outgoing leaders over this period will be essential to a smooth and peaceful transfer of power. In this regard, Suu Kyi's request to meet incumbent President Thein Sein, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann as soon as possible was astute. Whether the four meet en groupe or whether Suu Kyi conducts the meetings individually there will be much to discuss to avoid surprises on both sides -- including a clearly agreed timeline for the next four months, legislative priorities of the lame-duck parliament which will sit until late January, details of the 2016 budget, arrangements to deal with exigencies that may have implications for the next administration, and systems for an orderly transfer of public assets and liabilities, papers, and personnel.
She will also need to prepare initiatives to launch as soon as her administration assumes power. The two highest priorities will be the economy and the peace process. On the economy her focus will need to be on ensuring economic stability, openness to foreign trade and investment, and investment in energy and transport infrastructure. On the peace process, she should give priority to negotiating a genuine nationwide ceasefire agreement and initiate a political dialogue soon thereafter to establish a robust, stable union.
The numerous priorities ahead -- and the even broader range of responsibilities of running the government from April -- make it essential for Suu Kyi to build an organizational structure which allows her to delegate responsibilities while retaining overall control.
Running a government will be more demanding than running a party. All previous civilian administrations in post-independence Myanmar, then called Burma, led to economic and social chaos, giving the military a convenient excuse to step in. The NLD must break with this unfortunate tradition. The political capital of a landslide electoral victory should not be allowed to evaporate quickly through incompetent administration.
Suu Kyi's perseverance against formidable odds has brought her, her party and her country to this pivotal point in history. While Myanmar is at last heading in the right direction, this is only the first step in a long road ahead. She will now be asked to display a different kind of leadership -- one that combines competence with compassion -- so that the country can look forward to a future of peace, stability, and prosperity it so richly deserves.