Federalism, Democracy and the 2020 Elections

By The Irrawaddy 15 June 2019

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Free and fair elections are instrumental for the progress of Myanmar’s democratic transition to continue. There is just one year until the next general elections are held in 2020. It is fair to say that Myanmar has the largest number of political parties among ASEAN nations. Currently, there are 98 registered parties and it is expected that more than 100 parties will be registered to compete in the 2020 election. We can roughly divide these parties into three groups: the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD); ethnic and democracy parties; and the (military-backed) Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and its allies. We’ll find out the electoral strategies of ethnic and democracy parties. U Sai Leik, general secretary of Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and Ko Aung Moe Zaw, chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society, will join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy’s English editor, Kyaw Zwa Moe.

As I have said, Myanmar has the largest number of political parties in Southeast Asia. There were over 90 political parties in the 1990 election, and there were 93 parties in 2015. And there are nearly 100 parties now. In Thailand, there are just over 70 parties. In Indonesia, the number is much smaller, just around 15. And the same is true in the case of the Philippines. So, it seems it is quite a challenge to win an election here. Ko Aung Moe Zaw, how have you prepared to ensure victory in 2020 election?

Aung Moe Zaw: We need to secure a position in the Parliament to have a say regarding our beliefs and to represent the people on certain issues, but we are unlikely to win many seats. As of now, we have to prepare with a focus on potential constituencies where we are likely to win.

Secondly, as everyone knows, the ruling party is very strong. So strong that the voices of democratic parties, democratic forces and progressive people can in no way influence them. The ruling party is in a position to decide whether or not to listen to those voices. We need a position in the Parliament to criticize and/or make suggestions about the actions of the ruling party. Our party alone can’t do this.

We have allies with whom we have worked for a long time, especially ethnic parties that are more popular than us in their respective [ethnic] states and regions. If we can form an election coalition with ethnic parties that have a genuine desire for democracy and federalism, we hope we will be able to adjust to a certain extent the political situation of the country today. And we have to engage in dialogue with our allies to prepare for that.

KZM: With how many ethnic parties do you think a partnership will be viable?

AMZ: They have worked with us for many years, we have trust in them. The United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) and its members, those parties have consistently supported the cause of democracy. I think there are 15 parties [in the UNA].

KZM: The SNLD is one of them. U Sai Leik—as Ko Aung Moe Zaw suggested, in the political history of our country, single parties have dominated. The USDP won the majority in the 2010 general election, which was, however, not recognized as free and fair. And the NLD won the 2015 general election. What is the strategy of your party for the 2020 election to amplify the voices of ethnic parties and foster diversity?

Sai Leik: After the 1990 election it took 20 years for us to see another election, in 2010. How much progress did we see during that period? Though there were promises of change, there has been little progress to date. And the 2015 election was not a meaningful one because the government has not been able to perform the way that people had wished to see. Their performance regarding transparency, responsibility and accountability is unsatisfactory. As there is no properly-functioning government or parliament, the prospects for peace—which the whole nation desires—look dim. So, instead of approaching the election with the sole focus of securing power, if we approach it from the perspective of building the Union and [fostering] political dialogue, I hope then we will be able to make a move.

The electoral system practice now is first-past-the post (FPTP), which deprives ethnicities the right of representation. For example, in a town where only two ethnic groups reside, [a representative] of one group wins [the election] with 51 percent [of the vote], the other group that gets 49 percent [of the vote] loses. This means that second group can’t be represented in either the Parliament or the [local] government.

We need to think about how to amend this. Only when the existing electoral system is amended—before the 2020 election—will it be able to achieve peace, which all we desire. I think the current “winner take all” system is not a practical approach to the internal peace process.

KZM: The current system FPTP is based on the 2008 Constitution, and I think it would be difficult to amend it. Have you considered a coalition for the 2020 election given the current situation?

SL: Yes, we have considered it and agree with it. Now the NLD is in power, and we don’t know yet which party will be in power next time. But then, since the time of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, there have only been two major choices. In Shan we call it the black buffalo and the red buffalo. You choose either black or red, so ethnicities were deprived of their rights to express their voices.  Similarly, there are only two choices: the red [the NLD] and the green [the USDP]. So ethnic groups are still losing their voice. Even if according to the 2008 Constitution, for example in Rakhine State, the RNDP [Rakhine Nationalities Development Party], which represents the majority of Arakanese people, won the election and wanted to appoint the chief minister, it couldn’t. It wants to form the [Rakhine State] government, but can’t.  The 2008 Constitution doesn’t state that the winning party has to appoint ministers from its party members. It can approach politically and engage in dialogue to share power [with ethnic parties]. If the ruling party and the opposition take these into consideration together with ethnic parties, the election will be more pleasant, I think.

KZM: The ruling NLD party said it is working toward democracy and federalism. The USDP is formed by ex-generals of the military, and it has around 26 allies. It is fair to say that they are quite strong. There are right-wing parties based on nationalism. And, there are parties like your DPNS and ethnic parties that are working toward democracy and federalism. Let’s say it is complicated. What percent of seats does your party and your allies need to win in order to have a say in the Parliament?

AMZ: The SNLD has 17 seats in Parliament, and there might be other UNA members that have seats. There may be around 30 seats in total. If they work collectively on policy matters, they will be able to push a lot, I think. If they get around 50 seats, or up to 70 seats, in the 2020 election, their voices have to be heeded no matter which party comes to power.  As for our party, we don’t expect much. We can only expect four or five seats. It is simply not enough to push for changes. If we cooperate well with those allies, perhaps we will be able to get more than 50 seats [into a coalition]. The SNLD has the potential to win the entire Shan State. It has a high potential of winning the entire Shan State. Together, we may win more seats in the Union Parliament. I think we will have a certain degree of say if we can secure around 60 seats collectively. The most important thing is to remain united.

KZM: If people vote for other parties, the NLD will get fewer votes. If the USDP get more votes under such circumstances, I mean if there is vote splitting, how will this affect the democratic transition of our country? What would happen if their USDP, their allied parties and the military could secure over 50 percent of votes and form the government?

AMZ: I don’t think that will happen. I think people of the country are quite clear about the situation. Today, there might be a lot of frustration with the NLD, and I am sure the NLD will receive fewer votes in ethnic areas. But that will not be the case for the NLD in Bamar-majority areas, as far as I’ve studied. Again, public opinion on the USDP and the Tatmadaw has not changed, so I think the NLD remains the popular choice, though it may not be as popular as it was in the past. I think the scenario Ko Kyaw Zwa suggests is unlikely.

KZM: So you think the NLD will still win enough votes to form the government in 2020?

AMZ: Yes, I think so. I don’t think the opposition will win the election.

KZM: In Rakhine State, though the ANP (Arakan National Party) won the majority of seats [in the local legislature], chief ministers are directly appointed by the President, according to the Constitution. So, the President can choose anyone he likes. U Sai Leik, you talked about negotiating the appointment of chief ministers [by local ethnic parties in ethnic states]. If ethnic parties win more votes, as Ko Aung Moe Zaw has said, the [ruling] party—either the NLD or any other that comes to power in 2020—has to listen carefully and engage in negotiations. How much has the SNLD prepared in Shan State in that regard, and will the party compete beyond Shan State?

SL: In eastern Shan State, though the NLD won the election, it is not as favored as the USDP is there. And we ethnic parties can’t penetrate into that area.

KZM: So, the USDP has influence over there?

SL: Yes, because there are armed groups operating under the control of the Tatmadaw, like the BGF (Border Guard Force) and people’s militias. They are very influential with locals. Besides, they can spend money. Meanwhile, local people have limited political awareness. This gives an advantage to the USDP. People voted for it either under the persuasion or the coercion of those armed groups. But the situation may change, along with some degree of political openness. On the other hand, there are people who are frustrated with the performance of the NLD. However, this will not lead to a dynamic in which the NLD will have to step down. As Ko Aung Moe Zaw suggested, they may not win a landslide victory, but they will win enough to form the government. We will uncover the activities of the USDP, point out shortcomings of the NLD and we will rely on the young voters who will turn 18 and can cast votes in 2020. We are starting to mobilize in Shan, Kachin, Kayah and other states, focusing on those who might vote for us based on ethnic identity even if they still don’t understand all party policy.

KZM: The NLD was an ally of parties like the SNLD, which opposed the military regime and a have strong desire for democracy and federalism. But many say the NLD has not acted that warmly toward those parties and has not engaged and cooperated much with them after winning the election in 2015.

SL: While we were in opposition, we worked closely. To an extent, it could be described as an alliance. But some say the NLD has turned its back on us after it became the government.

KZM: Is it true?

SL: We don’t want to accuse them of that much, but it is true that the relationship has not been as warm as it was. The NLD government said its goal is to build a democratic, federal state. What all ethnicities want is a federal, democratic country. Of course, democracy is important. And federalism is equally important. Without federalism, ethnic people will not be satisfied with democracy alone. This is exactly where the gap comes. I believed that the NLD would take a lead role in amending the 2008 Constitution. It only took steps three years after it took office. It is too late. Suppose the NLD is elected again, and if it can’t prove that it would initiate federalism this time, this will create a greater distance between it and the ethnic people. In our approach to end the civil war, we need to reestablish the culture of party politics. If the government has an attitude that it need not to care about other parties and other ethnic groups, it will be more difficult to achieve peace in the long run. Only when we can establish a culture of party-to-party engagement, along with parallel consideration for the election, will we be able to establish a genuine, federal state. And this is the answer to reducing the gap between the NLD and the ethnic groups.

KZM: Elections were held recently in Thailand. There are over 70 political parties there. Prayut was elected Prime Minister again mainly because of the Constitution. In Myanmar, military leaders seem to believe the Tatmadaw needs to be involved in the country’s politics. It is enshrined in the Constitution. So, do you see any scenario similar to that of Thailand?

SL: It may be. But regarding a constitutional amendment, I would like to point out one thing. Many people think that constitutional reform is a legal problem, but I don’t think so. It is a political problem. If we approach it politically, the Tatmadaw must accept that it will have to reduce its role and give up its 25 percent of seats in the Parliament one day. Talking about plans to build a federal country and spur development without that is like building a castle in the sky.

KZM: The last free and fair election was held in 1960. The next election that was free and fair took place 30 years later, in 1990, but its results were not recognized. To some extent, the 2015 election was the first free and fair one since 1960. Will the 2020 election become the second one? Will Myanmar politics improve after 2020?

AMZ: The 2020 election should be fair to a certain extent. Then, electoral democracy will move a step further, but the fate of our country will not depend on this election alone. There are problems with the constitution and the peace process, and there are monopolies in our markets, among other problems.  So, the Tatmadaw is very important. The Tatmadaw should clearly understand its role and take responsibility and act with dignity. What certain is that as long as the Tatmadaw is still involved in the country’s politics, it would be difficult for our democracy to move forward. The Tatmadaw needs to understand this. I think it understands. And it needs to retreat from politics as quickly as possible.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions!