YANGON -- Myanmar's parliament on Wednesday elected Win Myint, the former speaker of the lower house, as the country's new president, a move that may signal a more substantive role for the head of state compared with his figurehead predecessor.
The parliamentary appointment of Win Myint followed the resignation of President Htin Kyaw last week. Win Myint, known for his outspokenness in the legislature, is expected to bring stronger opinions and a more assertive personality to the position. Htin Kyaw was seen largely as a puppet figure, since he deferred on all major political decisions to Suu Kyi, who, because her two sons are British citizens, cannot herself serve as president under Myanmar's military-drafted constitution.
The new president has been involved with Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy since its founding as part of Myanmar's 1988 democracy movement, clashing with the military regime then in power and serving repeated stints in jail. He was elected to parliament alongside Suu Kyi in the by-elections of 2012 amid the country's shift toward democracy. He has also cultivated an air of incorruptibility in a political system where rumors of bribery abound, going so far as to refuse customary gifts at his daughter's wedding.
Win Myint gained a reputation as a canny political operator in his two years as lower house speaker, shepherding such critical legislation as tax and investment reforms. He is known to be a strict floor leader, insisting that debate stay on point and pressing sponsors of legislation and critics alike to prepare diligently for discussions. "He is soft toward the outside world, but strict and tough inside the parliament," one NLD lawmaker said.
The elevation of such a competent politician to chief of state could subtly shift the balance of power in Myanmar. Some believe that Suu Kyi will hand over some of the administrative authority she has amassed over the past several years. Others even speculate that Win Myint could be in line to succeed her. If the NLD wins the 2020 election, the new president could take over as Myanmar's de facto as well as official leader, a ruling-party lawmaker said.
"At the age of 66, it is hard to say with certainty" that Win Myint would succeed Suu Kyi, said Yoshihiro Nakanishi, an associate professor who studies Myanmar politics at Kyoto University in Japan. "But he's certainly a candidate."
The most immediate question, however, is how Win Myint will perform at the helm. Multiple political sources have called the new president's assertive nature cause for concern. "I believe there will be frictions" between Win Myint and Myanmar's military, said a government source involved in peace negotiations with the country's armed ethnic groups. "Such a straightforward person will not be able to deal patiently" with issues such as economic reform and peace talks with the Rohingya Muslim minority, the person said.
Some change in leadership is inevitable: Myanmar's democratic movement turns 30 this year, and Suu Kyi is 72. In fact, some Myanmar experts consider the advancing ages of its leaders a major political risk for the country. The world is watching to see how the young democracy manages the risky transition to the next generation.