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Commentary

Proportional Representation in Burma: More Divisive Than Inclusive

Introducing a proportional representation system could help the Burma Army establish itself as a cohesive legislative block in the face of a more fractured opposition.


Electoral systems are important conduits through which the voice of citizens is heard, and careful consideration of a nation’s circumstances must be given when selecting an electoral system best suited to reflect the variety of opinions expressed by its citizens.

The study of elections in weak democracies or hybrid regimes, including those that reserve executive or legislative positions for unelected representatives, continues to garner attention in political study, though systematic research on this topic is lacking when compared to studies of elections in functioning democracies.

Those looking into the impact of elections in such hybrid regimes are therefore asking themselves the following question: To what extent do electoral systems matter in regimes that practice a diluted form of democracy, in which, for example, the legislature and constitution favor the interests of the security forces?

Such is the case for Burma as it approaches elections scheduled for some time in 2015.

The current debate of electoral system design for Burma is one between proportional and majoritarian systems. Burma currently utilizes a first-past-the-post voting arrangement, a majoritarian system inherited from British colonial rule. Recently, it has been suggested that a proportional representation (PR) electoral system would bring improved inclusion of minority parties into the country’s parliament.

Indeed, PR is generally believed to be more representative of a diverse electorate, and it has better mechanisms for avoiding the problem of “wasted votes.” Various observers also favor a change to PR in Burma, mainly in a concerned response to the possibility of the military reacting strongly to another landslide of the NLD, as it did after the results of the 1990 election.

However, the situation of the 1990 elections, which followed soon after horrific repression by the country’s military, and today’s consolidation of power by the military in the legislative and executive of Burma reflect very different circumstances for elections and thus very different ways for elections to be felt.

As stated above, the inclusion of minority representation is important in a country as diverse as Burma, and there is no theoretical argument presented here against PR in its ability to offer such diversity. However, the discussion of an appropriate electoral system in Burma for the 2015 election should not be limited to the argument of representation of minority parties in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Burma’s legislature. Or the likelihood of the military to annul results, which would effectively jeopardize the legitimacy of institutions that it has created and supported for the last three years.

The discussion should instead center on how and when negotiations and alliance building can or will take place between different opposition political parties of this country. There is strong reason to believe that the eventual representation of legitimate and consolidated ethnic minority political parties in Parliament and strong pre-election party alliance building among the opposition are intrinsically linked. A change to a PR system will likely increase challenges for opposition unification, a task that is already proving difficult.

2015 With First-Past-the-Post System

If the electoral system of Burma remains first-past-the-post (FPTP) for the 2015 election, then there is a higher likelihood of alliance building between political parties before the elections (and probably afterwards too). Such pre-election alliance building has been more common in countries using majoritarian systems. For Burma, this means a higher likelihood of alliance building between the NLD and non-coopted or fake opposition parties, particularly ethnic minority parties.

This is based on two ideas: First, parties that have mutual ideologies (similar policy or, in the case of Burma, a common political enemy) and strongholds of voters, (strongholds based on areas of traditional support or on areas of ethnic homogeneity, especially for nationalist parties) are more likely to come to a pre-election agreement about campaigning.
They are less likely to challenge each other’s strongholds, primarily because it would be wasteful in terms of campaigning resources, and they will instead use time and resources to campaign in areas where they do not oppose one another but may oppose another competitor (USDP or fake/coopted parties).

Second, if smaller parties in a single constituency stand alone in FPTP, they each have much less chance of winning the most votes against bigger parties that are already well established; and they face a situation in which only one out of many will be the winner.

Therefore, alliance building could take place in two ways. Firstly, ethnic minority parties could combine in certain ethnic areas but we will see less likelihood of trans-ethnic state alliances. For example, if there are many parties within Shan State competing with one another over a number of constituencies, then it is more likely that some parties will merge; players will realize that they need to join forces (make one party) if they want to reduce their risk of total loss in a FPTP election.

However, if there are not that many parties in constituencies of ethnic minority areas, then there will be less risk of losing out in FPTP; therefore, there is less chance of alliance building. It must be noted that even with many political parties in one ethnic area, a major deciding factor regarding whether parties merge lies in the divergent or analogous nature of each party’s ideology as well as the condition of relations between party leaders, not to mention the relationship of such parties with the incumbent USDP. But such cleavages would exist to begin with, despite the chosen electoral system. The point is that in a FPTP election with single member constituencies, there will be a stronger “pull-factor” for mergers between similar parties than there would be under a PR system.

Secondly, ethnic parties and the NLD can support one another by deciding what constituencies to run in, thus making use of campaign resources more efficiently while also solidifying pre-election relations. This assumption has limits, as the NLD has weak relations with those parties that took part in the 2010 elections and some questionable relations with those that it forged alliances with in 1990.

But, if this type of alliance building occurs, with the NLD respecting some limits to its campaigning in certain ethnic minority constituencies, then the NLD can enter Parliament alongside a larger contingent of allied ethnic parties. Accordingly, despite its shortcomings as a truly democratic legislative body, the Parliament of Burma could become an arena where the NLD and ethnic minority parties further establish rapport, something that has been hard for them to do in the face of the military and government’s divide and rule policies.

A Change to Proportional Representation

If the system is changed to proportional representation (PR) before the 2015 elections, then alliance building among various opposition forces will be significantly more challenging. The NLD, worried about its real representation in Parliament, which will very likely be lowered with PR, will feel pressured to run in all constituencies that it can, thereby causing friction between itself and other opposition parties, especially ethnic minority parties.

The NLD will run in ethnic minority areas not because it wants to challenge the right of ethnic minority parties to represent their own people or because it thinks it necessarily has more chance to represent more people in that constituency, but because it will need to scrape up as much representation in the national legislature as possible to balance out that which it will lose in its own strong constituencies, all of which it would normally carry in an election using FPTP.

Consequently, it will be harder for the NLD to make genuine agreements with ethnic parties that truly make up opposition to the USDP / military. It will not genuinely be able to say, “We won’t run in this constituency because we want to honor an alliance and find ourselves together in the parliament in opposition to the USDP and military.”

Changing to PR has at least two key consequences. Though it contrasts with the pragmatism of creating opposition unity, the first is that the NLD will have to persuade the ethnic minority opposition parties that it must run in ethnic minority constituencies.

This will be hard to do, but it could be made even harder by a public relations campaign run by the USDP or a new USDP-friendly party that publicizes its friendly relations with ethnic minority parties, friendly relations created by alliances in which the USDP or another USDP-friendly party will “respect” the sovereignty of minority parties to run in their areas and represent “their people.”

The NLD will have no choice but to confront this publicly. It will be forced into a corner where it will be made to look like the selfish, self-fulfilling party that will not let ethnic minorities represent their own demands through their own parties. This will be easier to do in some areas of Burma than others, particularly in places where the NLD has lost ground.

Arakan State is a prime example, but it is not the only area where the NLD will face open criticism. For example, in areas where the National Brotherhood Federation is able to influence voters, there will be stronger resistance to the NLD’s participation. The NBF does not have strong relations with the NLD; however, it is highly likely that the NLD currently holds a bigger place in the hearts and minds of the public within NBF constituencies than the relatively new NBF parties.

Secondly, a PR system would allow for the existence of smaller parties that could further atomize the opposition. In the case of Burma, any PR system that is introduced would most likely include a low threshold to allow a wide range of political parties. This means more small parties in Parliament, and, as a result, more chance of division in the opposition.

Furthermore, the combination of high levels of corruption and numerous political parties, many of which would in all probability represent the interests of party leaders instead of constituents, could create more incidents of cooption by powerful elites or the dominant party. Those parties, including the NDF, who have expressed desire for such an arrangement have clearly revealed their insecurities as small parties and their concern of losing the chance for any representation in parliament.

However, it is also important to note that the USDP had in the not too distant past 1) rejected PR 2) been unsure ; and 3) supported PR. In any reelection, it is in the incumbent’s favor for the opposition to be as separated as possible, and a move to PR would undoubtedly have this effect. Understandably, an FPTP election that is freer and fairer would make it more difficult for USDP incumbents from single member constituencies to win against candidates from the more popular NLD, particularly in urban areas, as well as ethnic minority parties for that matter.

The USDP’s past indecisiveness about changing the electoral system reflects an interesting tactic of the incumbent to see how ethnic minority parties reacted to the possibility of adoption of PR for 2015. Now with the USDP voting through a bill in the Upper House to change the nation’s electoral system to some form of PR, the incumbent has signaled its readiness to use further tactics to divide and weaken the opposition. If it becomes law, this change will have the additional costs of likely gerrymandering and confusion among voters inexperienced in PR elections. Civil society will likely feel the pull to spend its time and resources in educating citizens about the functioning of the new PR system instead of focusing on the important tasks of election monitoring.

Post-2015

Electoral reform should take place in a post-election period when the question is less politicized and when there is enough time for a good consultation process and the drafting of laws. As the time before 2015 dwindles, it will be of no surprise if the incumbent advocates such an argument and leaves the electoral system as it is.

Burma is largely agricultural, with farmers struggling against difficult production conditions, including land insecurities, restricted markets, and poor weather conditions. Furthermore, many village systems are still authoritarian in nature, often with villagers following the instructions of the village head, individuals frequently chosen by nearby township authorities.

This reality raises the issue of vulnerability to vote buying, the occurrence of which was widely reported during the 2010 elections. In a mostly agricultural country that struggles with poverty and poor infrastructure, such practice can become rampant. Recent vote buying in Afghanistan, a mostly agricultural and underdeveloped nation, offers an example of how serious this interference with voting can become.

The opportunity for vote buying along with the fail-safes provided to the military and the state party by the 2008 Constitution will undoubtedly see the military and USDP through to the other side of the 2015 elections with most of their power intact. But changing to PR and further disrupting opposition unity before new institutional frameworks and civilian bodies have been tested by non-incumbent participation further weakens legitimate chances of reform, particularly in the realm of civil-military relations.

It is not that some form of PR could not be a good electoral system for Burma. It is that the benefits of PR in the current system are highly defunct (25 percent military seats in Union Parliament, 25 percent military seats in state and regional assemblies, and a non-civilian commander-in-chief, whose powers actually exceed that of the president).

The fact that any political force needs a unified majority within Parliament to make significant headway in law-making and constitutional changes against a sizeable unified voting block of the military and USDP makes the idea of a more inclusive, and thus more diverse, system of representation a paradox. It is true that when looking at a wide range of legislatures filled by systems of proportional representation we consistently find more party representation than legislatures filled by means of a majoritarian electoral system.

However, if the electoral system of Burma changes to PR, the military and the incumbent will likely face a weaker challenger to its power in parliament as more parties stand alone, each taking votes and a small portion of seats and finding themselves trying to form a complex coalition in parliament. As a result, Burma will continue to wrestle with a pseudo-democratic system, in which the military not only pursues its own interests but also establishes itself as a cohesive voting block in the face of a more fractured opposition.

Tom Lochery is a teacher at Educational Initiatives Burma.