RANGOON — Some of Burma’s smaller political parties want to change the country’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system ahead of national elections scheduled for 2015.
Parties such as the National Democratic Force (NDF) are seeking a move toward proportional representation (PR), which some say allows for a wider representation of parties in a country’s parliament and is based more closely on the spread of votes in an election than the FPTP system.
“There are many small parties in Myanmar now. The PR system can better guarantee our place,” says Khin Maung Swe of the NDF. Some of Burma’s smaller parties have been pushing for a voting system change since mid-2012.
However, the lead opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is against any amendment of the current system, at least before the next election.
Party spokesperson Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy that “our stand is that the PR system is not fit at the present time, for the next election. We have to educate the Burmese people about any new system, and that will take time.”
Burma’s current FPTP system is partly a colonial legacy, and remains in use in the UK and in other former British colonies such as Canada, India and the United States.
The advantages of the system are that it is relatively simple to implement, and facilitates fast, decisive counts and outcomes—unlike PR, which can take time to count, slowing up results.
The PR system usually allows for a proliferation of small parties—a common complaint about the procedure elsewhere, where it often leads to coalition governments as large parties find it difficult to acquire the majority of seats needed to govern alone.
Proponents of the PR system argue that it results in a more representative parliament, with parties winning seats proportional to their percentage of support nationwide. A 2011 report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a London-based think tank, said that “FPTP works best under a two-party system—indeed, FPTP is designed to punish third parties and discourage the public from voting for them.”
Among the parties seeking the introduction of the PR system is the National Unity Party (NUP), which won 35 percent of votes in Burma’s last free and fair nationwide election in 1990. Under the terms of the FPTP system, the party ended up winning only 10 seats in Parliament, or little more than two percent of the total.
The NUP says it has sought the implementation of a PR electoral system since 2006, and senior party member Khin Soe told The Irrawaddy that “if we have a PR system, then we can have a more democratic system, as we will have multiparty system in Parliament.”
In Burma, it seems likely that FPTP will lead to a straight fight between the NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) for the 75 percent of seats available in the next election. (The remaining 25 percent are reserved for military appointees under Burma’s 2008 Constitution.)
Speaking to The Irrawaddy in 2012, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond worried that the current voting system could see the NLD dominant in Burma’s politics after the 2015 election.
“If the current first-past-the-post system is retained without amendment, it raises the prospect that the NLD will sweep most of the seats in 2015 but without perhaps having anything like countrywide unanimity in the vote,” said Diamond, a prolific author on political transitions and the workings of democracy in a wide array of countries.
Such an outcome could marginalize smaller parties and deny representation to some of Burma’s 135 officially acknowledged ethnic minorities, which collectively make up around 40 percent of the country’s estimated population pf 50 to 60 million.
Some of the larger ethnic parties could dominate at a regional or state assembly level under the current FPTP system, however, and some ethnic minority parties do not feel that PR is the best system.
“Maybe it is alright for some of the smaller Burmese parties,” says Nai Ngwe Thein, chairman of the All Mon Region Democracy Party. “But it will not work well for ethnic parties in the context of a federated union,” he told The Irrawaddy, adding that “most of the ethnic parties prefer the current system.”
For the current system to be changed, amendments have to be approved by Burma’s Parliament, currently dominated by the USDP and its military sidekicks.
“If [changes to the electoral system] cannot be approved during 2013, the electoral system will remain unchanged. This is because [change] takes time. It cannot be reformed of my own volition. Free and fair elections will have to be held on the basis of an approved system,” Union Election Commission chairman Tin Aye said earlier this month.
For proponents of change, such as Khin Maung Swe, one idea is to test PR in a constituency or state election first, before implementing any nationwide change.
“It is up to the Parliament to vote for any change,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We will work with whatever system is approved.”
The Union Election Commission will meet political parties and various civil society representatives later this week, with the voting system likely to be on the agenda.