Proposed By-Election Changes Aim to Limit Polls’ Frequency

By Tin Htet Paing 2 May 2016

RANGOON — Burma’s Union Parliament is looking to modify election laws to reduce the frequency with which by-elections are held by blocking off the first and fifth year of parliamentary terms as periods in which polls to fill empty seats cannot be called, according to a statement issued on Friday.

The amendment would be applied to all of the country’s legislative bodies—the Union Parliament’s Upper and Lower houses and 14 regional legislatures—which currently require by-elections within six months of a chamber seat being vacant, as per modifications made earlier this year.

The change would mark the fourth time amendments were made to a set of three election laws that were enacted in 2010.

Sai Kyaw Thu, a director from the election department of the Union Election Commission (UEC), expressed support for the modifications, while noting the important role by-elections play in ensuring voters have a voice in legislatures.

“If a constituency has vacant seats for both chambers of the Parliament or regional parliaments for too long, it will not be good for voters [in those constituencies],” he told The Irrawaddy.

Election watchdog Thant Zin Aung, who is chairperson of the Forward Institute, agreed with half of the new by-election restrictions, but highlighted the legislative term’s first year as critical and suggested that a ban on by-elections in this period would be a mistake.

“During the first year of a Parliament, representation of lawmakers must be really strong, especially on a path to democracy like [Burma’s] current situation,” he said.

“Every seat [in Parliament] should be occupied to raise voters’ voices. If not, the vacant constituencies will become really weak,” he added. “The first year of a Parliament is all about proposing new bills, submitting important proposals—which every lawmaker should be actively involved in.”

However, Thant Zin Aung said he supported a prohibition on by-elections in the last year of the country’s five-year legislative terms.

“Holding a by-election in the last year of the Parliament is a waste of money as the legislative body should be already stable and the term will expire in the following year,” Thant Zin Aung said.

Burma has held just one by-election since its transition to quasi-civilian government began more than five years ago. That by-election, in April 2012, saw the now ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) contest and win dozens of seats, though the party remained an opposition force in the legislature with little power until last year’s general election, when it won nearly 80 percent of elected seats.

The 2012 by-election was called to fill 45 seats in the Union Parliament, many of which were vacated by members of the formerly ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) who took up positions in the cabinet. The NLD has selected fewer of its cabinet members from the national legislature than its USDP predecessor.

Nonetheless several other constituencies remain without representation after the UEC decided not to hold elections in some Shan State townships, citing instability caused by conflict, or in the case of the Wa Special Region, the local Wa authorities’ decision not to allow polls in the semi-autonomous zone.