PHYU, Myanmar - Ousted Myanmar ruling party chief Shwe Mann is mounting a comeback ahead of a historic election next month, setting the stage for a likely presidential bid that will add to the unpredictability of the country's transition to democracy.
Hundreds of campaign workers are blitzing Shwe Mann's home district in an attempt to maintain the taciturn ex-general's foothold in parliament. If he succeeds, some analysts predict a split that could help opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).
"There's nobody like him," croons a male vocalist as campaign trucks in the tumbledown town of Phyu blare a rock ballad lauding the area's most famous son. "He's the one the people should choose for democratisation."
The campaign is underpinned by nearly $2 million spent on local development projects by businessmen linked to the country's old junta, according to interviews and a document obtained by Reuters.
Just two months ago, Shwe Mann - once a presidential favourite - looked set for political oblivion.
In scenes reminiscent of Myanmar's half-century of military rule, armed police had stormed the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), removing him as its leader in a purge orchestrated by President Thein Sein.
Now, two senior Shwe Mann allies say if he wins in Phyu, his next step will be a tilt at the presidency, which is set to be chosen by the newly elected members of parliament next year.
"We hope our party members and the other parties will join and nominate him as the presidential candidate," Win Oo, a pro-Shwe Mann USDP lawmaker, told Reuters.
A SPLIT PARTY
Shwe Mann's supporters tout him as the ideal consensus candidate for a fragile country.
An ex-soldier awarded the honorary title "Thura" for his battlefield exploits, he was widely considered the military regime's number three prior to the advent of semi-civilian rule in 2011.
But as lower house speaker, Shwe Mann cultivated ties with Suu Kyi, whose party is expected to win most seats in the Nov. 8 election. It was this that led to his ouster.
Independent political analyst Sithu Aung Myint said if Shwe Mann returns to parliament he will almost certainly end up leading a renegade faction within the USDP, creating a split that in turn could help an NLD candidate win the presidency.
Suu Kyi herself is barred from the job by the country's military-drafted constitution.
At a recent news conference, Shwe Mann responded obliquely when asked if he aspired to the presidency.
"Time will tell," he said. "For the benefit of the nation, I will negotiate or co-operate with any person or party."
"PAY BACK OUR GRATITUDE"
In Phyu, a recent Shwe Mann campaign meeting was held in a gleaming assembly hall that opened in June and bears a plaque with his name. The structure cost about $420,000, raised mostly from more than half a dozen businessmen who prospered under military rule, according to a list of donors seen by Reuters.
A hospital was built with roughly $1.3 million secured by Shwe Mann from the Max Myanmar Group of US-sanctioned businessman Zaw Zaw, said Tun Aung, a member of the hospital's board. Max Myanmar did not respond to a request for comment.
"We owe thanks to him," Tun Aung said. "Now it's time to pay back our gratitude."
Suu Kyi has not visited Phyu, despite travelling around much of the country to rapturous receptions, leading several NLD supporters interviewed by Reuters to grumble that she appeared to be letting Shwe Mann win.
Local NLD candidate Than Nyunt, however, said the party was aiming for victory. "If we're contesting, we have to win. This is politics," he said.
At an NLD campaign stop in one hamlet, farmer Tun Myint, 48, said he wanted Suu Kyi for president.
"But if it's not going to be her, Shwe Mann is the most suitable guy to change the country," he said. "It's time to prioritise what can be, rather than what we want."