As regime frets, the Lady rides high in the polls

Aung San Suu Kyi steps up her campaign despite fears elections will not be fair

Aung San Suu Kyi was never going to be on time. Not if her convoy was going to stop to receive every bunch of flowers, not if she was to reach out and shake hands with everyone who approached her car window. Not if she was to pause and watch, smiling, as children in red and yellow traditional outfits danced for her. After her convoy of vehicles crawled along the narrow road lined with people waving flags and banners, it was a miracle she was only an hour late.

Once she got to the podium, microphone in hand, she quickly got on with business. "I came here to say 'please vote for me'," she declared to a roar from the crowd. "You call me 'Mother Suu'. I think it means you want me to do something."

A week away from by-elections that could determine whether or not Burma continues on the path towards reform and is rewarded by the West for doing so, the country's opposition leader is ramping up her campaign, polishing her rhetoric and increasingly voicing fears that the 48 polls may not be entirely free and fair. In two rallies close to Rangoon, where tens of thousands of people turned out to see her, including one in the constituency she is contesting, she used humour to highlight claims that the ruling party has been offering incentives to voters.

"I heard that some organisations are lending money," the 66-year-old said to widespread laughs. "Please get a loan, but then vote for me and say thanks to them."

Political rallies are supposed to be happy events. But it would hard to imagine a greater density of smiling faces than those on display at recent events organised by Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). At one, two monks clad in maroon robes and each holding an NLD flag in one hand and an ice-cream in the other walked off grinning broadly.

One local said that, having been under the stifling boot of the military junta for so long, people's emotions were bubbling over. "It's difficult to explain, this feeling people have from the bottom of their hearts," said Than Than Myint, 37, who was seeing the Nobel laureate for the first time in the flesh at a rally at Dagon Seikkan, east of Rangoon, where it appeared as if the democracy leader was speaking to a sea of red flags. "If there is no cheating we will win."

The NLD says it believes it will win 40 of the 48 by-election contests if the process is fair. Three polls in Kachin state, where savage clashes with ethnic fighters continue, have been suspended. The government has extended a limited invitation to international observers to watch the votes, yet the NLD says it remains deeply concerned about irregularities.

On Thursday, the party issued a statement accusing President Thein Sein of breaching election guidelines and campaigning on behalf of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The NLD has also highlighted problems with the names on voter lists.

"There are many problems. We think they are intentionally making it difficult for our party," an NLD spokesman, Nyan Win, told The Independent on Sunday. "There are also many leaflets being distributed around the country saying many [false things about the NLD]. It's propaganda."

Asked about Ms Suu Kyi's participation on the campaign trail, he said: "She is nearly exhausted. She has two assistants, who are lady medical doctors, and they are with her at all times." He said he was unaware if the NLD leader had adopted a special fitness regime or diet for the campaign, but he added: "I don't know about that, but I know she likes chocolate, black chocolate. She says it's medicated."

Even if the NLD wins each of the polls it is contesting, it will not shake the USDP's hold on power. But the elections are considered very important, for both the main opposition and the government.

The NLD decided to boycott a 2010 election because Ms Suu Kyi and hundreds of others of political prisoners were still detained. Even now there are some senior figures within the party, most notably Win Tin, who think it should have sat the process out again this time.

As it is, the party is using it as preparation for a general election scheduled for 2015. "This is only a small election, but people are very excited about the situation," said Win Tin, himself a former political prisoner.

Meanwhile, with their eyes on getting debilitating sanctions lifted, Thein Sein and his colleagues in the government hope the poll will persuade Western nations and others that the country's leadership is committed to irreversible change and the establishment of democracy.

Whether or not that is the case remains the most crucial, and yet most difficult, question to assess. Observers say that while there have been some changes "at the top", things at the grass-roots level are little altered.

Asked if Thein Sein represented a clean break with the past or if the former military ruler Than Shwe was still a force behind the scenes, one Western diplomat in Rangoon said: "The first answer is no. The second is it is not clear."

The NLD's situation as it prepares for the polls is hardly ideal. A number of its candidates have little public profile; almost all of its senior figures are elderly and at times there appears uncertainty about what the party's election message should be.

Some supporters have also expressed concern about the danger of relying too much on the charisma and fame of their leader and not developing other strategies. Indeed, a repeated comment among many of the farmers and labourers who have flooded to watch her is that while understand little about politics, they "trust the Lady".

Several of her senior colleagues have used similar words to explain why they supported her proposal to engage with the government and participate in the polls. Even now, the full details have yet to emerge of a conversation last year between Thein Sein and Ms Suu Kyi after which she was persuaded to tell her party to re-enter politics.

At a recently opened coffee shop, Nei Htet Naing, a former political prisoner and poet, said: "It's worrying that people rely too much on Ms Suu Kyi. They should support her and follow her example. We have to reduce our fears."

The poet, who spent six months in jail, said he was unimpressed with the reforms undertaken so far by Thein Sein. "The road towards democracy is so narrow," he explained. "If you go into the USDP office you will see people who are from the army. They have just changed their uniforms."

Yet among the crowds who turn out to see her, squeezing themselves on to buses, trucks and tractors, to reach the venues in dusty fields, there is a sense that this opportunity, however limited, must be seized.

In a field outside a temple in Kawhmu, the constituency Ms Suu Kyi is contesting, two women said they had been there almost all day waiting for her. It was 5pm before she made her way to the stage, an attendant shading her from the burning sun with a large umbrella.

"I would like to vote for her and I wanted to see her. Just seeing her face, I feel love and respect," said one of the women, Aye Aye Mar. "I hope that she will do everything to help the country, especially the economy."