Upper House Adopts Nationwide PR System

By San Yamin Aung 25 November 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s Upper House on Monday approved a proposal to adopt a Proportional Representation (PR) voting system in all states and divisions for the election of Upper House lawmakers, a controversial decision opposed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.

A majority decision was reached with 138 lawmakers supporting the introduction of the PR system nationwide, while 24 MPs, mostly from the National league for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic minority parties, voted against and five MPs abstained.

The decision means that Burma will have two different voting systems for the Houses of Parliament as it prepares for the 2015 general elections, which is supposed to be the country’s first free and fair vote in 25 years. During the election, 75 percent of all parliamentary seats will be up for a vote, but a quarter of seats will remain under direct control of the military.

A proposal to introduce PR in the Lower House failed on Nov. 14, when Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann announced that the proposal had been judged unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. He said the Lower House would keep the current First-Past-The-Post voting system.

Under a PR system, the number of Parliament seats won by each party is proportionate to the number of votes received nationwide. Under the FPTP system, the winning lawmaker in each constituency takes a seat to represent the area in Parliament.

In recent months, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)-dominated Houses of Parliament set up committees to change the voting system to PR, a move that was fiercely opposed by Suu Kyi’s NLD and some of the ethnic minority parties. The proposal was first brought forward by the National Democratic Force, a small party aligned with the USDP.

Banyar Aung Moe, an Upper House MP with the All Mon Region Democracy Party, said the decision to change the voting system for the Upper House to PR was constitutional.

“It is different in the case of the Upper House. The PR system was considered unconstitutional in the Lower House because the Constitution states that for the formation of the Lower House the constituencies will divided based on the township and population. But for the Upper House, each division and region is considered as one single constituency,” he explained.

“In the Lower House, where the constituencies are based on township or population, there is one representative from each township, therefore the PR system can’t be used,” added Phone Myint Aung, an independent MP who is on the Upper House committee that studied the introduction of a PR system.

The Constitution’s Article 141(a) states that each region and state is represented by 12 Upper House lawmakers, while one lawmaker represents each of the seven Self-Administered Zones.

Phone Myint Aung said that under the adopted proposal the accumulated votes for the regions and states will be translated into a share of Upper House seats. He added that the Self-Administered Zones will keep the current FPTP system.

In June, the Upper House had already approved a plan to introduce PR for Burma’s divisions, but this was expanded to include all divisions and states by Monday’s vote.

Phone Myint Aung said a report by his commission outlining the details of a PR system for the Upper House has been sent to the Union Election Commission (UEC), which would further develop laws for the PR voting system and send it back to the Upper House.

Party members representing ethnic minority parties said they disagreed with the change to the Upper House’s voting system, but had been powerless to stop it passing through the USDP-dominated Upper House.

Chin Nationalities Democratic Party Lawmaker Paw Lian Lwin said the change in the voting system ahead of the all-important 2015 vote undermined democratic principles as Burma’s electorate would struggle to understand it.

“The country’s parliamentary term is not very long any more, the voters will have difficulty with [understanding] the new electoral system in the coming election,” he said.

The ethnic parties and the NLD have repeatedly said that the change to PR is a ploy by the USDP to dilute the support for the opposition, comprising the ethnic parties and Suu Kyi’s hugely popular NLD.

During a rally for constitutional reform in Karenni State early this month, Suu Kyi deplored the plans to switch to the PR system. “We believe that this system is not appropriate yet for our country… By accepting the proportional representation system, it would spread out the votes of the people and it seems designed not to make our party win the election.”

Banyar Aung Moe added, however, “Not all ethnic parties disagree with switching to the PR system, but not all [MPs] are opposed. It is also possible that we, ethnic parties, could gain more seats under the PR system.”