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Commentary

In Burma’s Young Democracy, Vote ‘No’ on Proportional Representation

There are many reasons why Burma’s electoral system should not be changed, at least for now, in a country just emerging from decades of dictatorship.


There are many reasons why Burma’s electoral system should not be changed, at least for the time being.

Burma’s electoral system should not be changed from first-past-the-post (FPTP) to proportional representation (PR) because the change will be seen as a Blitzkrieg—a surprise, full-scale attack to enhance the advantages of the ruling party and undermine the chances of its competitors even more than is now the case. Burma’s electoral playing field is and will remain heavily uneven and unfair. A sudden change to the electoral system will make that playing field even more uneven.

There have been no proper consultations, discussions, neither among political parties nor in public. The general public, media, political parties and even members of Parliament have little understanding of the different options under a PR system and what the possible consequences of each system would be. In a country that is in the early stages of fragile democratization, changes that have a significant impact on the rules of the electoral game and final outcomes should not be done without broad consensus. If President Thein Sein’s government, his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the military are sincere in their democratization agenda, they should not use their overwhelming parliamentarian majority, which was gained during a heavily manipulated 2010 election, to trump the disagreement of opposition parties. Such a move would further undermine the already shaken trust in the reform process.

There are already several hotly disputed issues between the ruling triangle (Thein Sein’s government, the USDP parliamentary majority and the military) and the opposition. The last thing that the fragile transition process needs is one more issue of heated dispute. A short-sighted, utilitarian move by the USDP and military implement a PR system in the hopes of enhancing their chances of 2015 electoral victory will harm the long-term interests of the whole country in achieving a smooth transition away from the previous military dictatorship.

Another reason that the electoral system should not be changed now is that there is not fair proportionality as it is, with 25 percent of seats already reserved for military representatives. There is no PR system in the world that has 25 percent of seats excluded from electoral competition. A PR system alongside the military’s guaranteed 25 percent allotment of seats is PR in name only. Take away the reserved military seats and PR can reasonably be considered—accompanied by a package of additional constitutional reforms. Keep the 25 percent reserved seats and introduce PR for the remaining 75 percent seats, and the only thing that will be achieved is to give victory to the USDP-military coalition before elections even take place. If such a change were to be introduced, we could have elections in 2015, but we would not have uncertainty. The winner would be known in advance and that winner would be the military plus its USDP spin-off, plus co-opted and fake opposition parties.

Proportional representation may one day be right for Burma, but only after the 2015 elections and removal or at least a significant reduction in reserved military seats. To be more precise, what might be good for Burma is not a PR Party List system, but a so-called “German version” of PR, also known as a mixed-member proportional voting system. I personally think that even in that case, first-past-the-post would better suit Burma than a PR system, and that the former, plus federalization, would produce in Burma a similar party scene configuration as we see in India. This is open for discussion, and that there are several strong pros and cons for each electoral system.

I can imagine that at this point, even politically aware and educated Burmese readers are already confused and lost. He or she is probably asking himself/herself, what is Party List PR and what is a mixed-member proportional voting system? That is part of the reason why the change is not appropriate now. There is too little knowledge and understanding in Burma about the differences.

There are two other important reasons to refrain from change at this point.

A shift to PR will open another highly contested issue: What should the threshold be? If we have a threshold too low—for example, 1 percent or 2 percent—then we will get a highly fragmented Parliament with too many parties and too numerous coalitions. But if the figure were set higher than 2 percent, some parties representing ethnic groups with smaller populations might find it difficult to pass the threshold. Some ethnic groups in Burma that have a strong sense of identity and have clear and declared aspirations for self-rule have a relatively small population that might not guarantee that their ethnic parties will pass the threshold. Even a 3 percent threshold might be too high for Chin, Karenni, Mon and Kachin ethnic parties.

It is no surprise that the Nationalities Brotherhood Forum has strongly protested against the change. With their territorially concentrated ethnic nationality populations, ethnic parties have a pretty good chance to win adequate representation in both regional and Union-level parliaments under the current system. Under a PR system they might gain fewer seats. The only exception might be a Karen party (if there is to be one main Karen party), which under PR could better gain Karen votes from the Irrawaddy Delta, Rangoon Division and Karen State.

A second problematic issue concerns the possible boundaries of the new electoral districts and who will draw these boundaries. Completely redrawing electoral districts gives a lot of opportunity for gerrymandering (the division of a geographic area into voting districts so as to give unfair advantage to one party). With the government (and probably the government only) having at its disposal the full, detailed results of the census, and with the Union Election Commission hardly an independent body, there is a high probability that wherever the new boundaries would be, there would be a high level of suspicion and disagreement from the opposing sides. This will only fuel more tension and conflict in an already highly volatile pre-election situation. Not changing the electoral system eliminates any disputes over electoral districts and their boundaries. They would be where they were in 2010, bringing a predictability that would probably be acceptable for all political players.

Changing the electoral system just a year before elections—elections that should be the first free elections after decades of military rule—can only create a total mess, especially given the shrinking window in which to do so, and the many different agendas that are already in motion. There are countless questions, too many unknowns and too little time.

The argument that FPTP will produce dominance by one party is a false one. It is highly probable that in the current political situation, ethnic parties, being allowed to campaign freely, will perform well in their ethnic constituencies. The USDP, as the party that will use the many advantages of incumbency and its formidable campaign apparatus, could perform much better than it did in the 2012 by-elections. One-fourth of Parliament is already occupied by the military. So to claim that there is a danger of a South African-style over-dominance of a Burmese equivalent to the African National Congress is simply disingenuous. That argument ignores political realities in Burma.

For further democratic development in Burma, it is less dangerous if we have a victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by the popular Aung San Suu Kyi, but also a good showing for ethnic parties, with 25 percent military MPs and a not totally defeated USDP. It would be much more dangerous if 2015 resulted in a situation in which we had one strong state party (USDP), backed up by the military with its untouchable and still strong prerogatives, and on the other side a fragmented and resource-less opposition consisting of more than 40 parties fiercely battling one another. A PR system could easily bring us to such a point.

Let me add a few more reasons why a PR system is not an appropriate choice at this moment.

In the early phases of democratization, we often find a proliferation of new parties before the first free and fair elections. But democratic consolidation requires a significant reduction in the number of parties. FPTP will much more efficiently achieve that. With its many territorially concentrated ethnic groups, particularly if we have some decentralization and federalization, Burma’s political party scene will always be crowded and colorful. A proportional system in Burma, if not thought out well, could create a situation in which the country would be unmanageable due to too many parties in Parliament and weak, unstable governmental coalitions. The last thing that an underdeveloped country with a long history of authoritarian rule and internal conflict needs is an unstable system in which no coalition lasts.

Burmese citizens are familiar with the FPTP system and not with PR. If the electoral system is complicated, a ruling government can easily manipulate the electoral process.

Political parties are not yet mature in the areas of policy development and decision-making. The same goes for voters. So for voters, it will be easier to make a choice between different, clearly identifiable candidates running in their own region. It will be much more confusing for them to decide to vote for a party without knowing the differences between their policies.

The political culture in Burma is strongly centered around senior party leaders, and intra-party democracy is almost fully absent in all parties. FPTP will lessen the dependence of MPs on their party leadership only, and will tie MPs more strongly to their constituencies. There is hope that a strengthened civil society might hold MPs more accountable and responsive to the demands and expectations of their voters. It is much less probable that this will happen under a PR system. A PR system will just fortify the dominance of the top party leadership and the unhealthy culture of patron-client relations.

With the introduction of the PR system, it is very probable that we will see the emergence of a radical ultra-nationalistic Buddhist party that will enter Parliament and hold strong bargaining power. Introduction of a PR system would also be conducive to the formation of a “Muslim party” and maybe even a “Chinese party,” and these parties might have much stronger representation in Parliament than several ethnic nationalities. Public opinion and traditional political groupings in Burma are not well prepared for such change.

There are other, much more pressing and important issues that should be addressed before the 2015 elections to make sure that they are free and fair: consensus on constitutional amendments between the ruling powers and the democratic and ethnic opposition; ceasefire and peace agreements; an independent and credible election commission; an independent citizens network to monitor the election; an independent Supreme Court capable of resolving electoral disputes; and acceptance of international monitoring. Changing the electoral system from the FPTP to a proportional one is certainly not a priority on the level of these issues.

It is much more reasonable to keep the FPTP system for the next two elections, allowing for the stabilization of political institutions and the political party scene. Only after that should there be an open discussion concerning whether or not the country needs a change of the electoral system. If this discussion finds that there should be a change, then more details can be discussed.

The question about the right choice between majoritarian and proportional electoral systems will not be an easy one in the case of Burma. The choice between the current majority (FPTP) system or a PR system should be made only after careful consideration and serious consultation with all political stakeholders.

It should not be done in haste, without proper consultation. This issue should be discussed after the 2015 elections in the new Parliament, the makeup of which will be much more representative and legitimate. Furthermore, it should be discussed and considered in a package with other issues related to amending or re-writing the Constitution.

Igor Blazevic is a Czech-based human rights campaigner of Bosnian origin and the director of Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists based in Thailand.