As Myanmar Weighs Electoral Prospects, Delhi Poll Offers Cautionary Tale

By Prakash 2 March 2015

The debate over which electoral system is best suited to Myanmar seems to have been put on the backburner for now, but it is only a matter of time before the issue resurfaces, potentially ahead of crucial November elections.

Those who are waiting in the wings to reignite the debate need not look very far afield for fodder to support a change from Myanmar’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. The recent Assembly elections in New Delhi provide a good case study in how use of a certain electoral system can make a difference insofar as the question of representation is concerned.

The Delhi elections brought the rise of the recently formed Aaam Admi Party (AAP), which won 67 of the 70 seats and an absolute majority. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules the country, was relegated to a token opposition force of just three seats. You may say, “But that’s what elections are all about, especially in India, which has a multipolar political landscape.” So what is the lesson for Myanmar and its polity?

A closer look at the election results reveals how a majoritarian system can be extremely unrepresentative.

Even though the party was defeated this month, the BJP’s vote share dipped only marginally, from 33.1 percent in 2013 to 32.1 percent in 2015. With a 33.1 percent vote during the 2013 Assembly elections, the BJP won 31 of the 68 seats that it contested, but this time around it managed only three seats even though its vote share dipped just 1 percentage point.

The winning AAP, on the other hand, took 54.3 percent of the latest New Delhi vote. This was enough to give it a “landslide” drubbing of the BJP, in the process wiping out the historic Congress party.

The question to ask is: Does something sound amiss, when a party with just over 50 percent of the vote takes an absolute majority?

On the face of it, the AAP’s resounding victory is being held up as the people’s mandate and a response to the BJP’s inability to deliver on campaign promises that it made in the lead up to the May 2014 Lok Sabha (Lower House) election in which it swept to power.

Is this what a genuine and democratic election looks like? There’s no end to the questions that can be asked, though answers are few and far between. Regardless, surely this does merit a thought on what the possible outcome of the 2015 elections in Myanmar might be under the FPTP system now in place. Will the results reflect the voting preferences of a pluralistic society or will potentially millions of people see their votes “wasted” in a winner-take-all contest?

This is where one feels that the decision of Parliament’s Lower House to rather abruptly end debate on the electoral system change requires a bit of introspection and soul-searching. Myanmar has come of age and it’s not one party alone that should be seen as driving the democratic aspirations of the people. There are many political parties and each has its own ideological underpinnings and support base.

Proposals to change Myanmar’s electoral system have been shelved for the time being, ostensibly because such a chance “would not adhere to the Constitution,” according to Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, who deferred to a report from the Constitutional Tribunal. If that were the case, why did a discussion on the subject drag on in Parliament for months? Was it some kind of grand plan, the outcome of which is known only to a few?

Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear: The current system will bring about a result akin to what we saw in the Lok Sabha election in India, and the just concluded Delhi Assembly vote. In India the question that’s being asked is, what of the voters that cast ballots for the parties that won more than 30 percent vote, but could not translate those votes into seats?

The same question will perhaps visit Myanmar and this could make the country’s political situation more complex than it already is.

Many so-called experts and writers have said that the process of choosing an appropriate electoral system can be “complex.” There is no doubt about this, and indeed, electoral systems in themselves are complex. However, this does not mean that the complexity should cause us to shy away from discussion the reality of how each electoral system works. If we confine our discourse to the FPTP system, we must consider probable outcomes of the 2015 elections under this framework, and need look no further than polls in Burma in 1990, 2010 and the 2012 by-elections.

In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 60 percent of the votes giving it as many as 80 percent of the seats in Parliament. In the 2012 by-elections its vote share was about 65 percent, but it took about 95 percent of a total 46 vacant parliamentary seats. In the 2015 elections under the existing electoral system, the party could ride its popularity to a landslide victory. Its arch political rival the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had a vote share of almost 60 percent in widely discredited 2010 elections, with the total number of seats being 77 percent.

Given this history, it is clear that any one party that wins a landslide and an absolute majority may have the mandate to form a government on its own. But questions on the fairness of the outcome would linger and be a source of much tension, especially among smaller parties and possibly ethnic parties that may not get the required number of seats to give them bargaining space, or even an appreciable voice in the opposition.

If a proportional representation (PR) system were to be used, then possibly no one party would get as many seats as it otherwise would under the current system. Surely in this case the seats would be divided and smaller and minority parties would get fairer representation based on their vote share. But a PR system and any other system has disadvantages too, which have been spelled out in the past. Without getting into what these disadvantages are, we can deduce that for an ethnically diverse country like Myanmar, it is always best to keep churning the pot to determine what is best for the country and its people.

Besides, we must remember that any one party holding a large enough majority to pass legislation on its own does not augur well, especially if Myanmar aspires to a democratization that is robust and inclusive.

Prakash is an elections expert working to promote electoral democracy and good governance in Southeast Asia.