The two would-be women presidents

What chance do democracy’s ladies in waiting, Aung San Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton, have, asks Nehginpao Kipgen.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi are two of the most immediately recognisable women of this generation. However, with pulsing popularity comes intense scrutiny, especially when climbing the ladder of public office.

As the two icons of democracy aspire to become heads of their respective countries – the United States and Myanmar – the international community’s focus on them is fiercer than ever before.

What challenges confront the two ladies in their quest for the presidency? And do they seriously have a chance of becoming the first woman president of their respective states?

Clinton is in the early stages of her bid to becoming the next leader of the free world, while Suu Kyi is dealing with constitutional roadblocks that prevent her from holding the nation’s top job.

Initially, many considered Clinton the undisputed frontrunner of her Democratic Party – until the primary election kicked off in Iowa. Tangled in a virtual tie with Bernie Sanders, things went from bad to worse for Clinton, with Sanders beating her by 22 percentage points in New Hampshire’s primary poll.

Clinton, whose campaign largely draws on the legacy of the Barack Obama administration, has strong support among women and older voters. But this popularity is matched by voters who are fuelled by Sanders’ call for a political revolution.

As the primary season is far from over, it is premature to say if Clinton will eventually become her party’s presidential nominee. The early political winds, however, suggest that her pre-poll popularity does not necessarily match her ambitions for the chief executive office.

In contrast, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) overwhelmingly won Myanmar’s November 2015 election. Her main roadblock to power is the 2008 constitution drafted by the military government.

Article 59(f) states that the president and one of his or her parents, spouse or children should “not owe allegiance to a foreign power, not be a subject of a foreign power or a citizen of a foreign country.” Suu Kyi’s two sons and her deceased husband are British citizens.

Even before the election, one of Suu Kyi’s key agendas has been a smooth power transition with the hope of convincing the military leadership to allow her to become the nation’s president.

In her quest for the presidency, Suu Kyi has met the most powerful present and former military leaders, including former military dictator Senior General Than Shwe. She also met the current military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and the outgoing President Thein Sein.

When Suu Kyi met Than Shwe in December last year, she assured him that her government would not dwell on the past, including decades of military rule under his government. In return, Than Shwe endorsed Suu Kyi as the ‘future leader’ of the country.

However, negotiations over the handover of power have stalled, mainly over the division of authority and the legacy of military rule. This led to the NLD postponing its election of a new president until 17 March. The new government will commence its term on 1 April.

In America, the election of Hillary Clinton would be more or less an extension of the Obama administration and ensure its legacy, especially when it comes to major issues such as healthcare, immigration and foreign policy.

Thus, the likelihood of Clinton’s presidency depends on whether the American people are prepared to continue the status quo, and if they are ready for a woman president for the first time in the nation’s history.

Contrastingly, the presidency of Suu Kyi mostly depends on the military. Though there is an alternate route to amending or replacing the constitution outside of the parliament through the peace process with the country’s ethnic armed groups, the possibility is bleak.

Unlike the United States, the future course of Myanmar politics is likely to be different, and a gradual change from the Thein Sein administration, if Suu Kyi becomes the president.

Although there is significance for both in becoming the first woman president in their respective nation’s histories, neither their status as advocates of democracy and human rights nor their global popularity will help them in their quest for the job.

The voters in Myanmar have mandated the NLD to form the next government, but it is still too early to tell if the American electorates feel the same about continuing the Democratic Party’s reign.

For now, Clinton and Suu Kyi remain merely hopeful candidates. But in the cold hard reality of politics, one wonders if hope is enough.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including the forthcoming “Myanmar: A Political History” available from Oxford University Press.